Kiss of Death for Social Networking Projects: “What is your Business Case?”

I continuously fail to deliver the right message to senior leadership on the value or Return on Investment (ROI) of Social Networking Software (SNS). The problem is that the value is not something that is directly, or quantitatively measured. In fact, the whole “business case” thing is a bit nebulous, as Facebook, with its 200 Million users, is not turning a profit.

If we begin by admitting that we do not completely know how the Department of Defense (DoD) can strategically use Web 2.0 tools such as SNS to provide a benefit, then why do we need to pre-define the way that it will deliver value? We should understand that the system has a value and strategic importance, but not try and define some preconceived notions on the exact way we expect to use the system to be used. I would go so far as to say that we should not pre-define what that benefit is until people begin using the capability as a novel approach to solving their particular problems and needs.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

When looking at forming a business case for SNS, I find it very difficult to approach it from the dynamic of “solving a particular problem” for a “particular group.” When at a networking event or a large conference, you can meet several different individuals, exchange a few business cards, and make connections with people working on problems you are also working on. You may make 1000 exchanges at the conference, yet it is hard to put a price tag on that one single exchange that led to a collaborative problem solving session two months afterwards.

See our demonstration system, DEFStar a social networking pilot for the DoD: http://defstar.sraprod.com

The approach of DEFStar is to provide the simple ability for people to connect easily and more quickly than ever before. How they find it useful is for them to decide. These tools allow groups to form around the problems that they are interested in tackling or common interests and passions. They key is that the technology is merely an enabler, and has more to do with finding the best value in accomplishing the task of fostering participation though connecting people together, keeping them coming back to form new relationships and maintain the ones they have already.

The reason we cannot just go out and find a group with a problem that social networking can help them with is that they are first, already a group. However, SNS may help them do things quicker, help to recruit new members, and encourage current ones to actively maintain their membership through contribution and participation. In other words, we are not finding new problems to solve; we are just making better use of technologies to solve the problems we already know of. Not that this is a bad thing; I just want to see “what else” we can do here! What else can we benefit from?

For a group like the Intel Community, they had a problem of needing to connect and share information in a more meaningful way. They formed their tool, A-Space, with specific functionality that suited their community. They built something useful that allowed them to collaborate using a SNS that worked within the context of their group and their problem space. What can occur in this situation is that the collection of capabilities can become specialized. It may seem, to some other group seeking to solve their problems, that A-Space is “just another tool” because its functionality does not suit their particular needs.

Did you know that there are almost 100 different social networking sites out there on the Internet? Many of these have a particular crowd devoted to them, or satisfy a particular niche in the market. It is OK to have more than one, and a little competition never hurt for product improvement. DEFStar has already seen resistance to adoption, and will continue to encounter those that choose to pooh-pooh the idea and effort. What we stand to gain from understanding benefits and value through usage and the elegant solutions that arise from complex social behavior mixed with the right technologies will be priceless indeed.

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Robert Giggey

Can you provide anything more on DEFStar. The link only shows your welcome page. Would be interesting to see shots of what’s going on inside the space.

Martha McLean

Brock – congrats on possibly the best name for an online group I’ve come across. A very solid piece. I’m supposed to sign up for a day of training on Lotus Connections and then wait the pilot and post-pilot analysis prior to being able to move ahead. So, once again, the risk averse technical department will likely force me to go ‘rogue’ and simply create a ning group or something similar.

Great article to help my cause – thanks and congrats.


Karen Hobert

Brock – your observations are spot on when it comes to social software. Dictating their use is a sure path to slow adoption. Providing a platform of social software services and the guidance on how to use them is the way to social software adoption. The key to social software success is threefold:

1. Make it easy to use (e.g., register, login, find things)
2. Give users personal value (e.g., blogging, finding & communicating with people, sharing files)
3. Give the community value (e.g., forums, meeting rooms)

Trying to from-fit tools to meet a specific use case is like a dog chasing it’s tail. Each user and group will employ the same tools differently depending on their unique needs. If you provide guidance on how and when to use the tools, and outline the policies for using them users will do the rest. Just like GovtLoop! Clay Shirkys book “Here Comes Everybody” details this premise with some very interesting arguments.

Thanks for the insight.

Matt Bigge

good article and love the name DEFStar. It would be great to get more information. Quick point: Facebook is not profitable, but they are generating a decent amount of cash. With respect to ROI, there are ways to measure and justify social software. In fact, the analytics that can be used to measure social software often provide a more concrete ROI calculation than more traditional forms of IT. On a very high level, one can refer to the coup in Madagascar in which the US Embassy was almost overrun. The State Department made deft use of Twitter to inform the mobs that the overthrown ruler was not in the US Embassy. Result: mob dispersed, no NEO required. Cost of a tweet ~ $0.00. Cost of a NEO ~ millions. Glad to discuss more…matt

Tim Constantine

Good article Brock!

The benefits of your DEFstar system are derived from people changing their work practices. Tie the tool to the change in work practices, and then the change in work practices to the benefits, then the benefits to your organization’s mission.

Technology -> Change -> Benefits -> Objectives

(Each step is critical!)

Managing the project from this perspective will also help ensure that the all important Change step occurs. If you build it, you can’t assume they will come. If you utilize this approach, you tie the change to the organization’s mission, and you have a better chance of success!

I highly recommend that you read Managing the Realization of Business Benefits from IT Investments.

Brock Webb

Wow, lots of great responses and feedback!

Gwynne — just wanted to respond to what we are doing with DEFStar — My goal is to create the best “market driven” user experience, not just another “tool” for people to use. I am trying to market it to both power users which are quick to join, as well as figure out the right motivations and incentives for bringing the rest of the people (moderate to late adopters) in and keeping them active. 80% of the DoD civilian demographic is over 30, which represents only 20% of social networking usage of things like facebook or Myspace — that imbalance alone creates an interesting challenge.

I want it to be useful within the context of the DoD community, but I want to bring in people from all over the government as well to keep it fresh with ideas and fun!

BTW I firmly believe that “fun” is the secret ingredient, and trying to slide the scale to being more “social” over more “professional” will increase active participation and recruitment!

David Harrity

Love this posting and responses. One observation that I believe makes GovLoop.com successful is that it is built on a (relatively) proven platform, the Ning network. Part of the proof of Ning is GovLoop.com itself so not sure if it’s a chicken-and-the-egg scenario. But, another key aspect of GovLoop.com is the diversity of the topics that can and are followed. But, also I don’t believe that Govloop.com is fully accepted (at least by the U.S. Federal Government community) because all the details related to security, 3rd party hosting and cultural mindset within the government have been figured out. On the latter, Mary Davie made an observation, “the term “social media” often implies “non-business” related activities to the unfamiliar.”

For example, if Steve Ressler locked this down to JUST talk about Government 2.0 and Social Networking, then I believe it would become less successful overtime because we would could run out of things to talk about. But, Govloop offers the ability to create diverse communities ranging from Green Building technology to Communication Best Practices to Gov 2.0 itself.

Social networking in most cases (at least Government-to-Citizen interaction) should be to “compliment” but not replace other forms of communication and collaboration. In Inward Bound as described in Social Software and National Security: An Initial Net Assessment”

There is a strong need to combine the commercial offerings (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace) to help solve and interact citizens with the government but less of a case to do so for “internal” conversations using social networking. Maybe we need to use the term “social-professional media” or “social-professional networking”

Tamara Lamb-Ghenee

I think another quote from Einstein can also apply here. “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” While we don’t know at this point what benefits may come from Social Networking, we do know that sharing best practices and developing communities of practice have had positive returns in the past. So to paraphrase Einstein, just because you cannot count it does not mean it is not of value.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hi Brock – We should talk soon. Ari Herzog and I delivered a presentation entitled “Social Media Measurement” for ALI’s Social Media and Government conference in late March. The slides cover ROI. Also, I have composed a series of posts here on GovLoop and on my blog on measurement that fleshes out the content of the slides:

1. Introduction

2. Brookings

3. ForeSee

4. Forrester

5. PMA/OMB – coming soon!

Also, have you seen the “New Media and The Air Force” guide and video? As I have been saying, forget the gold standard. This is the new Blue Standard for a foundational government social media document.

Steve Richardson

Interesting topic and great contributions! May I suggest an R&D or advertising/sales model for your business case? Social networking is not about achieving specific objectives; rather, it’s an investment in innovation. I’m in the business of measurement, but I don’t think this is an activity worth measuring. It should be carefully designed, managed and evaluated on its effectiveness at attracting the type of people who are likely to make valuable contributions and making it easy and rewarding for them to do so (like this site). Quality of the exchange can be assessed as a balance to measures of activity levels. Most results, however, are not likely to be attributable. It really boils down to this: Organizations that do not give creative people discretionary resources (mainly slack time) to exchange knowledge lose those people – or at least whatever they could have created if they had opportunities to explore new ideas.

Jeffrey Levy

Great post and comments. I often talk about “return on engagement” vs. investment. And yes, it’s hard to quantify. I do my best to use anecdotes, such as my recent post “Twitter to the Rescue!” You can’t know in advance that those kinds of things are going to happen, but they’re valuable.

The low expense (often only staff time) of trying some of these tools out means the business case is much easier to create. And don’t forget the benefits of learning while doing. I advise managers at EPA that, at minimum, they should learn about the new tools. Even if they don’t use them immediately, they need to know what’s out there.

Overall, the key is to focus on mission, not technology. Identify a mission need, try some tools out to meet it, measure success, evaluate, reset, repeat. And I like to add “teach” to the end, because we’re all learning about social media. So I’ll end with saying thanks for an interesting post!