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On collaboration: interview with Luis Suarez (first part)

In preparation for the next Social Business Forum, which will be held on June 8th in Milan, I reached Luis Suarez to ask him a few questions. Luis replied to my questions for half an hour and more, so firstly I want to thank him for his willingness. Here is the first part of the interview.

Roberto: Hi Luis, could you introduce yourself?

Luis: Hi Roberto. My name is Luis Suarez. I actually work for IBM, I have been working for IBM for the last 14 years, and I specialize mainly in the area of knowledge management, collaboration, online communities, and the last 8, 9 years around the area of social computing or social networking. My current job is working as a social computing evangelist in the company, and I’m part of a group called BlueIQ. That’s the color blue and then add the IQ.

Our mission is to basically help evangelize on the adoption of social software tools for IBMers as business tools. So basically doing lots of education, training, consultancy, enablement, support on how fellow colleagues can use these social software tools as their business tools, right? In order to collaborate more effectively and in order also to engage with conversations with their customers and business partners.

Roberto: Thanks. I wish to comment with you a couple of infographics. The first one is from Ernesto Olivares – you shared it some days ago on your blog. There is a quote from Thomas Allens: “Based on proximity, people are not likely to collaborate very often if they are more than 50 feet apart”. Based on your experience, do you agree with this statement?

Luis: It’s an interesting statement. To be honest with you, I don’t agree with it very much. The main reason is that if that were true, I probably wouldn’t be able to work for the company that I’m working now.

I am based in the Canary Islands. My boss and my team there are all in the States, and that’s more than 50 meters apart from each other, and we do collaborate every single day. What happens ‑ and I think that’s probably one of the things that the infographic was missing ‑ is that we are currently working in a corporate environment, especially for large enterprises, where virtual collaboration is now more critical than ever because most of the employees are actually working distributed.

For instance, for our case, inside of IBM we have about 400,000 people and around half of that work remotely. They work from home, from their home offices, they work from customer sites, they work from the road and everything else. To them, virtual collaboration is now more critical than ever, so obviously what I’m trying to say as well is that virtual collaboration is not replacing the invaluable capabilities of face‑to‑face collaboration, I think that everyone understand how they’re much more powerful.

For us, as mobile workers, as tele‑workers, collaboration has never been more important than ever. For instance, ten years ago collaboration used to happen through , and only email, as the main tool. Nowadays with the emergence of all of these social software tools like blogs, wikis, activity streams, as well with social bookmarks and tagging and podcasting. That whole range of collaboration is richer than ever, so people have got an opportunity now to decide and negotiate how they’re going to collaborate. And do it virtually.

Roberto: So it depends not only on technology but also on behavior, culture and attitude. Isn’t it?

Luis: Absolutely, and actually, if you want to go ahead and push me, I’ll tell you that collaboration is all about culture. The tools are enablers; the tool’s allowing you to collaborate, but unless you want to collaborate, collaboration is not going to happen, right?

So certainly there are a number of companies out there for which collaboration is not a given, in the sense that people don’t collaborate well with each other because they feel that they don’t want to share their knowledge because sharing their knowledge is sharing their power. They don’t understand concepts like public or transparency or openness. For those cases, even if you have got all of the different social tools available, collaborating is going to be a very big, tough challenge.

Not to mention as well people working in silos, isolated from everyone else. Collaboration is all about our behavior, it’s all about having a healthy habit of wanting to share what you know and learn. Certainly organizations need to have the ability of compromise and commit to want to share what they know. This hasn’t got anything to do with social software, this is going more back to where knowledge management started, right?

But, for instance, if one of my colleagues is asking me for help and I can provide it, as a human being I cannot neglect it. We always try to help people who are in need, right? Whether they’re in need for information, or in need for supporting another customer problem or whatever, we’re always going to help them, right? There’s that mutual trance of wanting to help each other. What’s happening now in social tools, though, is that that activity of collaborating is easier than ever: everyone can create a blog, everyone can have a wiki, everyone can use activity streams like micro‑blogging or whatever. So it becomes a much more natural process of sharing.

It’s interesting because back in the day, when we didn’t have email, when we didn’t have these automated processes and everything else, people used to collaborate quite heavily. That was done through face‑to‑face contact, on the water‑cooler, on meeting groups. The reason for that is because all of their teams were working in the same building. But now the reality today is that with all that globalization, people work in different places. And they still have that need to collaborate, right? So it’s, like I said before, it’s more cultural thing, more of a habit than just the tools, usually.

Roberto: Email changed the way we send and receive information to and from colleagues, friends, customers and familiars. Until now many other tools have been launched, but none of them has reached the same worldwide and enterprise‑wide adoption. Do you agree?

Luis: Right. Yeah, that’s true, but here’s the thing. I agree with that statement, that email still is perhaps the main tool that people use with Internet corporate environment and everything else, although some statistics and some research studies have already proven that’s no longer the case. Social networking tools are taking more of a prominent role. But email is still the one that everyone uses, the one that is the most pervasive, but it’s also true that it’s been used for 40 years.

In the corporate environment it’s been used for 40 years. Social networking tools have been used in the corporate environment for five years. If you asked me this question in 35 years, I would probably tell you that social networking tools will be the only method of communication and collaboration in the corporate environment, and email will probably be a thing of the past, right?

So what I’m trying to say there is that yes, email is the king of the communication so far, but if you look at the growth of social networking tools versus email in the last few years, there is a huge increase in the use of social software tools versus email.

So we’re going from a transition where email was Pandora’s box ‑ everything fit in an email, everything went through email, everything was executed through email. We’re going to go from that into a situation where we’re going to start thinking of conversations that were happening in email, find out that we get much more better results and benefits by hosting those conversations out in the open using social server tools. Eventually people will be making that transition to the point where email will probably just be used for one or two contexts, or use cases, which is, in most cases, calendaring and scheduling, and one‑on‑one confidential conversations. Everything else is going to go out.

RobertoWhen do you think we will see a dramatic change? Should we expect 35 years?

Luis: No, no, definitely not. 35 years is a long time, right? I can tell you how there are some businesses who are already claiming that with their use of social software they’re seeing a decrease in email of 30 percent. So those companies have started using social software tools versus email and have already seen a decrease of their email volume by 30 percent. And that’s five years.

So I can imagine that’s going to be accelerated tremendously as more and more companies start using social software. So I think that we’re probably going to see that transformation, especially in the area of activity streams of . I think that microblogging is going to take over email. It has got that flavor of the full‑blown exchange of information that email has. And I would probably think that we’re going to see that within the next two or three years.

And then in two or three years we can have this conversation again and you can tell me whether I was right on or whether I was a bit slow in that prediction 🙂

Roberto: I wish I still am working in two or three years.

Luis: I’m hoping that we’ll all be still be working!

Roberto: In the same infographic, there is another statement saying that there will be an increase in collaboration spending in 2010 – 2011. It is referred in spending on collaborations tools. But in your experience, what is relationship between engineering costs, technical costs, and organizational costs?

Luis: Right. I think that all of the costs are more related to maintenance. Most of the enterprise social software tools are relatively inexpensive. Obviously that depends on the vendors and everything else. But they are mostly inexpensive compared to other solutions.

I think that the main costs are actually being involved on the maintenance of the infrastructure, as well as from the services behind infrastructure, from the perspective of consultancy services. Because one thing is you as a Business going and saying, “Hey, we bought this enterprise social software. Everyone uses it.” And go and figure out how you’re going to do it.

And then the other approach is, “We bought this software. We need help on how we can actually extend the use and the reach of these tools. So we need to know about adoption techniques and implementations, sources that we have, how we’re going to do it.” Work an entire enterprise social software that covers not just the tooling but also the behaviors. How are we going to get people to use it?

I think that most of the costs are going to be involved in that area. More than anything else, because like you said, tools are tools. They can’t be any more complicated than that. In fact, they should be relatively easy to use. I think that the vast majority of investment is going to be put forward into change management. How do we get people to change their habits today so that they start using these tools that become more productive.

Because most of the time, most of the employees, of businesses, they’re really set in their ways. They tell you, “Don’t take me away from my email and my phone. If you take me away from that, I’m done.”

And that will require lots of push, lots of facilitation, lots of coaching, lots of training, lots of additional services to provoke that cultural change. And I think that the vast majority of the costs are going to be involved more with that cultural aspect of going through that social transformation rather than on the tools themselves.

The tools are just basically enablers, right? Obviously they cost, some of them more than others, but if you compare those costs with the actual cultural costs related to it, the balance is more going to the area of provoking that cultural, behavior change.

(second part on Thursday, May 26th)

Foto in Creative Commons di Official U.S. Navy Page


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