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.
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.