Self-Organizing Business Networks

As the Social Business meme becomes more mainstream, people are starting to ask “What is the real connection with ‘Social’ after all?”  and “Isn’t the connection to ‘Social’ a bit overblown?”  After all, we really are not talking about literally placing Facebook (as the canonical example) inside a business.  Why, then, call it social?

Web 2.0 is about a web where everyone contributes, and there is no fundamental difference between a producer and a consumer: we are all both.
 Enterprise 2.0 takes that same concept into the business: an environment where everyone can contribute. I like the name Enterprise 2.0, but the ‘social’ aspect of either Social Business Software (SBS), or Enterprise Social Software (ESS) brings three additional features:


  1. self forming relationships,
  2. everything is relative, and
  3. bring your own identity.


1. Self Forming Relationship

Social networks are built in an entirely self-serve way.  You don’t have to talk to an administrator to set up a relationship with someone else.  This is so obvious in a social network that we often forget how revolutionary this really is.  I look around at all the system that require a “super user” at some point in the operation.  In my company to get space in SharePoint you have to make an application to an administrator, who then allocates space to you, depending on how busy they are.  I am not saying that SharePoint requires this, but that our IT department has set it up this way.  Most people who work in IT departments are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that someone might me able to create their own space.  “What if they made a huge space and used it?”

As I promote the use of Social Business Software within the organization, the first question the IT folks ask is “How do we lock this down so people can’t use it?  How do we prevent people from adding other people to the system?”  That is precisely the point of a social system: people add other people, and add spaces, so it grows without waiting on an administrator to approve and give permission.  If the social network is to grow, it must grow all by itself.  The system needs to be designed to be self-service, in order to remove a key barrier to growth and use.

2. Everything is Relative

There are no absolutes in a social network.  There are no central control points.  When you search for things, it starts by searching those linked directly, then second level, and so forth.  If you tend to congregate with people who have Canon cameras, then your network will have less information about Nikon cameras, etc.

This is a scary idea to librarians.  A library is a organized collection of information, but to be organized, one needs a taxonomy that everyone agrees upon.  That agreement runs counter to the decentralized nature of a social network.  One beauty of a social network is that groups of people who agree on a particular viewpoint can come together and organize things according to their own view of how it fits together.   There is no requirement for the system to have an “official” agreed upon way of organizing.

The downside is that without a universal taxonomy there is no way to guarantee universal access to information.  True enough.  However, a tribe member may still find it easier to go to the tribe (personal contacts) to find information more effectively than the public library or Wikipedia.  Libraries are “automation” in the sense that people are eliminated from act of information retrieval, while the other is a “network” that leverages the intelligence of people at the time of searching.  Both need to exist.  Instead of a single universal view, you have a plurality of different relative views.

3. Bring Your Own Identity

Because social networks are about making links between people, there needs to be universal identifiers for people.  Hypertext is the idea of making links between documents, and it is the “Universal Resource Locator” that enables the World Wide Web.  Social networks are evolving a similar thing for people.  It is also quite scary for privacy advocates, especially with Google and others pushing a “real name” concept, but that is actually a different concept. There are many good reasons for people to have multiple identities, but each identity should be globally identifiable (universal).

This is easy for a single dominating system like Facebook, Google, or Twitter, but even these systems can’t provide all aspects of what users desire, and so sharing these identities with other web sites is increasingly the trend.  I don’t know if these identities will be used in Social Business Systems, but I am sure that something like them, that allows shared identity to be used across multiple systems will prevail.

Does this really count as social?

It is reasonable to ask whether these are really ‘social’ features, or simply features that appeared in the world just at the same time that social network software appeared.  They are intertwined, so I am happy to use the term ‘social’ for these at least until some other term is invented that is better.

In conclusion we might say:

  • Any system that requires an administrator at any point for a user to use it, from registering, to allocating new space, is not a ‘social’ system.
  • Any system that enforces a single global view, taxonomy, or other way of organizing information is not a ‘social’ system
  • Any system that requires a special ID that is unique to that system, is not a ‘social’ system.

I am seeing social business software taking us in the direction of self-organizing business networks.   Let say you want to ‘partner’ with someone in another company: you should be able to share documents and information without needing to contact a system administrator.

Go back and read that last sentence again.  Can you imagine this with your current systems?   Say you want to hire a consultant to work on a project for you.  How do they gain access to your project repository?  Do they need a new network ID to log in?  Do they need a new VPN access to get through the firewall?  Do these new accounts need to be added in the access control lists for the folders holding the key documents?  How many requests to the IT department will it take to get all this set up?

For most of us, this is such a monumental task that we give up and just send the documents in email.  But we know that email fractures the conversation and causes additional busywork for both of us.  A shared space to work will be far more efficient.  Why must we settle for less?

Most current systems are built in such a way that they require a technically knowledgeable person to make these reconfigurations.  I am NOT suggesting that we simply open these capabilities up to business users.  Instead, I am suggesting that the system should be built from the very beginning to allow this kind of change; so these changes are safe for users to do.  It needs to be easy as well.  A system that requires coordinated changes in multiple places (such as adding a network user, and adding them to access control) is going to be difficult and error prone.

I have some ideas on how to achieve this, and I hope to present more of these over the coming months.  If we can achieve this, then we can imagine people building networks of shared spaces by themselves.  These networks will allow communications and document sharing safely and effectively.   The members of cross-organizational team will construct this network themselves.  That is to say, the systems that support such teams will be self-organizing in the sense that the people will expand and manage the IT infrastructure themselves, as they do their work, and not as a separate job done by specialists.   That, my friends, is Social Business Software.

Furthermore, this needs to be implemented with cooperating systems that do not trust each other, which leads to a need for replication, which is a topic for another day…

8 thoughts on “Self-Organizing Business Networks

  1. Keith, great observations that I mostly agree with. But it is not correct that a system is only social if it is completely un- or self-regulated. A system without an administrator, a common taxonomy or language, or where people are not identifiable will not develop social behavior. A social community shows all these functions and some rules are actually extremely important. Yes, some of these facilities can be handed to non-technical business people but then they take the roles of admins, librarians, or coaches.

    While it is desirable that one can share information from within one business with someone outside, that will require authentication, authorization and rules. And if it is only for compliance reasons. Most companies scan emails and I know that many do not allow email attachements.

    What I see as even more important is an ontology to describe the business and a taxonomy to classify content. Without that there won’t be productive excahnge of information in processes.

    Despite all that necessary structure, social complexity that leads to innovation is still possible and can be supported by such systems.

  2. Max, we continue to struggle to define precisely this category. I claim that all the functions that I mention need to be able to be done without an administrator. That does not mean that there are no administrators, just that they are not needed for these functions.

    There was a time when all automobiles were driven by professional drivers. When the cost of automobiles came down, it became possible for drivers to drive their own cars. This did not eliminate the professional driver, but it did bring about cars designed to be driven by the owner. That is the kind of change I am predicting here: actual integration across company boundaries by non technical people. It is futuristic!

    Most companies scan email for viruses, but also most of the companies that I work with would completely stop functioning if attachments were not allowed.

    I agree about the taxonomy, and I have planned a future post on this.


  3. Pingback: links for 2011-09-04 « steinarcarlsen

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  6. Yes, it\’s absolutely spoupsed to be a high level conversation that, hopefully, people not exposed to the practice will grasp! Thanks for the Don Norman link great supplement to help in our goal of general comprehension and learning.@Holger:Thanks so much! I agree I think Peter did a good job of explaining the complexity of different disciplines coming together around one common goal (UX). And, yes, he was drinking tea though he did make it clear that he was much more partial to coffee! lol.

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