Social Memory | Conversations are as important as the content itself

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Traditional content systems focus only the ‘creation’ aspect of the content and this is achieved through individual contributions or through collaborative efforts.
With the advent of Social Software – like Blogs, Artifacts, Q&A, Bookmarks and any ‘knowledge object’, apart from building value through collaboration one can build value through leveraging the individual actions around those knowledge objects and build a long term social memory.

Such individual actions are of low engagement and, individually, on a standalone basis they have little vale but the aggregation of these add up to lot more value  — like the ‘long tail’ phenomenon.

Social Software gives people the ‘choice’ to move between low engagement to high engagement depending on their interest levels and time. For example for a particular artifact or a category of artifact person A may choose to be just content with reading, subscribing or adding tags but at a different time & for a different category of artifact the same person may choose to refactor, comment, collaborate and have high levels of engagement.

The power that social software brings about is ‘providing the choice’ to the people to do all this and in the process making the conversation around the content as important as the content itself.

Social Computing behind the firewall | Pay attention to the ‘social’ behind the ‘computing’ for success

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With the advent of web2.0 and the perceived success of these technologies, tools, applications & platforms on the internet, making these tools & applications available behind the firewall seems to be the flavor of the season. It seems that any organization worth it’s salt ‘has to have‘ a enterprise 2.0 or web2.0 or a social strategy.  Most of the time, the people leading these initiatives don’t understand the essence of ‘web2.0/social’ applications and these initiatives then get reduced to rolling out blogs, wiki’s, social networking tools behind the firewall and asking people to use them.

This strategy of just rolling out social networking tools, without understanding why social computing works on the internet, is a recipe for disaster and any enterprise2.0 or social computing initiative based on a focus of just the ‘technology’ part will be short lived and not go anywhere. Anyone leading a social computing initiative behind the firewall needs to understand the ‘social science’ behind the ‘computing’ to appreciate why it has worked in the internet world and what all ‘social’ factors need to be considered and appropriate changes that need to be made in order for it to work in the more restricted ecology of a modern organisation.

Some of the underlying ‘social’ concepts that one needs to understand are:

  • User Participation: What factors drive user behavior and participation in social computing platforms on the internet? What are the key drivers and how is the organizational playground different from the internet w.r.t these key factors & drivers?
  • Emergence & Evolution: Do the managers & leaders of the organization understand the role of emergence in social computing or are they impatient and need all answers upfront and a ‘predictable‘ outcome with all intermediate steps outlined?
  • Managing vs Nurturing: Does the environment of the organization  create space for nurturing of people, ideas, thoughts, aspirations of employees or is the organization all about managing numbers, KRA’s etc.
  • The Arena Itself: What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander here. The dynamics, the participation levels, the numbers of people participating in the social applications on internet would be vastly different from that behind the firewall.
  • Value Networks: Do organizations that want to extend the social computing platforms to their customers/partners etc understand that this is not just as simple as offering these platforms to customers? What are the additional things that need to be done?
  • Cultural Alignment: The ‘secret sauce’ according to me in the whole recipe of social computing behind the firewall. One could have an organization that understands all this but still does not have the right cultural alignment to make social computing work. What are the critical factors w.r.t culture here?

Social computing has the potential to transform how business operates, how the flow of business knowledge, insights, intelligence and collaboration happens across the organization. Social computing can create alternative & more effective ways of communicating and collaborating across the organization, but the  key to that promise lies in how well the leaders of the social computing initiative understand the above ‘social’ concepts & realities.

I will try and outline the key aspects of  each of the above points in more detail in my subsequent posts.

web2.0 auto portals in India: mee too syndrome…

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eb2.0 & Automotive portals? wow..!!! As a passionate automobile enthusiast and a firm Web.20 believer, it represents the best of both worlds for me.

I have been following the auto portal scene in India from the late 90’s and have seen them evolve, stagnate and fade away. Have witnessed portals such as indiacar.com, cybeersteering.com, bsmotoring.com come and stagnate in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

When ‘AutoMartIndia‘ (now called ‘FirstChoice‘) was launched in early 2000’s, as an automobile enthusiast I was excited as it represented a paradigm shift in the way Indians bought & sold ‘used cars‘. In fact, the term ‘used cars’ came into existence — at least in India after that only. Previously ‘used cars’ were always referred to as ‘second hand‘ cars.

In the last one year or so, I have been very impressed by carwale.com. The way these folks have approached about building an auto portal is simply great. They put in one feature at a time, must have analyzed user behavior to ensure that it was working spot on, and then built on the simple web2.0 premises of usability & simplicity tied together and anticipating user needs. Once you looked at carwale.com, you realized — why the hell did other auto portals not think of it? This is exactly what I as a user wants.!! Features like used car prices to the granular level of models/city and mileage are a great boon to users. carwale perfected this with tapping into it’s user base to come up with city/model specific indicative pricing for used cars. There are a number of other features that one can go on and on about the value proposition that carwale.com provides — both to end user(car buyer) and car sellers (individuals & used car dealers).

Of late numerous auto portals that are replicas of carwale.com have come up. In my opinion, while this is testimony to the fact that carwale.com is successful and good, is also resulting in mee-too auto portals‘ whose value proposition is exactly same as that of carwale.com. While this can also be termed as expansion of market, this leads to stifling of innovation & new business models. These mee-too auto portals are doing exactly what the auto portals of late 90’s did — copy each other.

Don’t believe me: Just look at the home pages of three different auto portals(carwale.com, carazoo.com, driveinside.com). It would be very hard for a user to distinguish one from another.

What’s wrong with automotive websites/portals in India

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In the ‘print’ media, auto magazines like Overdrive, Business Standard Motoring, Autocar, etc cater to the motoring enthusiast of the country and all of these are very successful print magazines. For years, these magazines have been the sole medium for the auto enthusiasts to keep in touch with the passion they are mad about — automobiles.

Similarly, in the ‘television’ space, literally every channel worth it’s name is having it’s own ‘auto’ show  — at times with tie-ups with the ‘print’ magazines. These ‘auto’ shows on television have their ‘experts’ who are very knowledgeable and respected in the motoring world and very often these ‘experts’ are also the experts/editors of the print magazines. These experts often do the following:

  • Answer queries on issues/problems that viewers face with their  vehicles
  • Recommend which vehicle to buy to their viewers depending on their needs
  • Analyze the auto industry for happenings and trends
  • And other things – like international motoring scene, product launches, motor sports etc.

In the ‘internet’ space, as far as ‘automotive business websites/portals’ go, there seems to be a vacuum w.r.t websites/portals that can be termed as successful and having a broad user base (with the exception of carwale.com – a late entrant).  Many of the internet websites/portals aimed at the automotive segment were even backed by big names of the tv/print media – autocarindia.com from the Autocar stable, bsmootoring.com from Business Standard, Indiacar.com, cybersteering.com, overdrive.in from the Overdrive magazine.

One can safely assume that auto experts were involved with these websites and they would have shared all their experience. Why were these internet websites not able to catch the users attention in India and become successful? All these websites seem to have the ‘obvious’ and ‘seemingly right’ set of features available to make them successful. Most of the websites offer the following:

  • News from the auto industry & editorial articles
  • Compare vehicles
  • Buy & sell vehicles
  • Road Tests
  • Ask the experts
  • Prices of vehicles

It seems that most of the print magazines don’t know how they can leverage the internet and create communities of auto enthusiasts. At most, these print magazines view their internet websites as the place to advertize about their print magazine and few other add-ons. These magazines are not taking a strategic view of how ‘building communities’ can increase the sales/subscription of their  print magazines. It can offer a whole new paradigm of distribution channels, business models and extremely great competitive advantage.

In a subsequent post, I will talk about a auto website/portal that is successfully ‘building communities’ and is perfectly poised to leverage the user community into a great competitive advantage.

Wisdom of crowds did not work. Is it something to do with software engineers?

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Quite a few experiments, like counting the number of coins in a jar & guessing the weight of the cake have been conducted to test out the ‘wisdom of crowds’ concept. Recently I got a chance to conduct an experiment at a gathering of approximately 150 people — all software/computer professionals

We put up a jar filled with éclairs and asked the audience to guess the number of éclairs in the jar and note it down on a piece of paper and hand it over to us. Obviously, we were excited to know the results – if the experiment worked, did someone guess the correct number?

Here are the results:

We had responses ranging from 25 éclairs to 786 éclairs. The actual number of éclairs in the jar was 204. Out of the 134 responses, only 1 person got the number right. The average, the ‘collective wisdom’ of the ‘crowd’ was 161.4 – an accuracy % of 79.14.

The results have left me wondering as to why did the results not concur with the ‘wisdom of crowds’ theory. After all, the following elements of ‘wisdom of crowds’ were present in the experiment:

  • There was enough diversity among the participants. even though all the participants were software engineers, they came from different project teams, had varying levels of experience, roles etc.
  • Each person was making his/her own independent choice and was not influenced by any other member
  • There was means for us to collect and aggregate the responses.

The fourth element ‘Decentralization — people being able to specialize and draw on local knowledge’ can be debated to be missing from the experiment. How can we assume that there were people specializing in guessing the number of éclairs in a jar? How could they draw on local knowledge?

In Galton’s experiments, there were people who were butchers and farmers who one can assume to be specializing in ox/cattle. In ‘Guess the weight of the Cake’ experiment, people could feel the cake in their hands, there were people who were traders and hence one can assume that ‘knowing the weight of an object’ was something that they were familiar with.

The ‘guess the number of coins’ experiment was an online experiment and had no option for people to see, to feel the jar, hold it in their hands. Similar aspects were present in the experiment we conducted – we just showed people the jar filled with éclairs. We did not have people holding the jar, touching it, feeling it. Could such seemingly insignificant things allow people to make more informed choice? I don’t know.

BTW, ‘Guess the weight of the cake’ experiment was 99% successful even though it had just 120 participants whereas ‘guess the number of coins’ experiment was just 88% successful even though it had 1760 participants. This indicates that while the sample size could be a factor, but it does not seem so in the above examples.

I am wondering if aspects of ‘cognition, cooperation, coordination’ are present in such experiments?

What about the sample composition itself – all software/computer professionals? Do they bring diversity or are software professionals just not the right sample for any kind of experiment?

Generation gap, web2.0 & the cost of missed opportunities…

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In a casual conversation with a practice/business head of an IT services firm, I happened to ask her how she is seeing the adoption of Web2.0 in the organizations she interacts with and her line of business. Her response was on the lines of:

‘Very less.. it’s too early… actually people don’t want social networking the way it is on Flickr, YouTube.. In my view, LinkedIn is the ideal social networking platform… it is text based and doesn’t have too many images etc.. I can quickly check it out and come back… Why would I want to see my friends pictures on the net…. It’s a waste of time… how will it benefit the organization..’

Her responses made me wonder:

  • Do our business leaders really understand, or have attempted to understand what Web2.0 is all about?
  • Why do our business leaders equate Web2,0 to Social networking?

I my opinion:

  • The generation gap between the GenNet and Baby Boomer generation has HUGE implications on how web2.0 is viewed within the organizations and how it can be out to productive use.
  • In most organizations the leaders belong to the Baby Boomer generation and their interactions, in the course of business, would be with other baby boomers in their counterpart organization. This scenario lends nicely to a classic status quo model(unintentionally, without even the leaders realizing it) and a huge opportunity is being squandered – both in business, competitive advantage context.

Organizations that recognize the existence of generation gap within it’s workforce, the relevance of Web2.0 to todays genNet generation are in a great position to leverage the advantages of web2.0 within an enterprise to become more responsive, agile & competitive.

It’s an opportunity that an organization can either say ‘Pass’ or grab with both hands and run.

What’s similar between the concepts and principles behind Web2.0 and unconferences?

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Is it a coincidence that the adoption and popularity of barcamps, unconferences has coincided with the emergence of Web 2.0? Are there any parallels and similarities between the underlying principles of Web2.0 & barcamps, unconferences? After all both web2.0 & unconferences are about user generated content, architecture of participation etc.. etc..

I have tried to map the web 2.0 principles from the seminal article on Web 2.0; Oreilly: The Web 2.0 Design Patterns and tried to map them to the underlying principles of unconferences — and I see a striking similarity between both.

So; are unconeferences as the Web 2.0 equivalent of conferences? I bet they are..

Web 2.0 Principles

Unconference Principles

architecture of participation The basic premise behind the unconference philosophy. Every one participates. The (un)structure of barcamps, unconferences is such that it makes it easy for everyone to participate – in the manner they want.
self organized The participants themselves are the organizers. There is no ‘official organizer’. Every participant is welcome to volunteer and organize some aspect of the barcamps, unconference.
Emergent The agenda, content and even schedule is not pre decided. Everything emerges at run time and from the participants themselves as the barcamp, unconference unfolds
Perpetual beta Some unconference sessions can be washouts. It is taken in stride and no body minds that aspect. In fact participants just walk over to some other session
Gets better as more people use it The more the merrier. You can break away into smaller groups and start your own sessions
Informal & light weight No keynotes, welcome address, 5 star ambiance etc. no frills, no flashy brochures, no marketing, just to the point
Harnessing collective intelligence Every one is a participant. There is no distinction between the speaker & the audience. Everyone contributes
Rich user experiences Extreme socialization & interaction between participants. Here it goes beyond exchanging business cards and networking. You exchange thoughts ideas. You can even enter into a dialogue, debate and even make some of your best friends here.
Users add value “The audience is smarter than the speaker”… A fundamental aspect of the unconference. It is the users, the participants who make the unconference successful & add value – as opposed to formal conferences, where it’s the speakers who are perceived as adding value.
Cooperate, not control Nobody controls the unconference. It is delivered not by control but by the cooperation of participants, volunteers.