Social Construction: an aid for solution envisioning

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Barn raising, DeKalb County, Indiana, USA, about 1900

Of the new technologies that are defining the future of work and forward looking horizons of business the most buzzed about are the quartet of Social, Mobile, Cloud and Big Data. Some, as I have mentioned earlier, like to call it the SMAC stack, A being Analytics – to represent Big Data. I heard a new pronunciation for it, s-mac instead of smac(k) and I like it better now. 😉 But I digress.

I would ideally add 3D printing to the list too, since I think that’s going to be a far greater disruptor than any of these from the quartet. You can already print live cells to make tissues, print houses, print guns (oh horrors!), teach children to make 3D chocolates … err … make stuff, and we all know that the economy depends on the collective creative outputs of the humans. But that is disrupting the way you look at economies more than disrupting business. And maybe why people ignore it. But I digress, again.

Of the sMAC stack Social is the one element that is the toughest to convince the CXOs about. And that’s what I want to talk about in this post.



Mobile is just a new interface; and they all love to use the iPads & iPhones. Big Data, or Analytics, they know its business value and its not hard to see that there is a huge influx in data. Cloud is predominantly a CapEx vs OpEx kind of argument; everybody needs the computing infrastructure one way or the other. But Social, its a bit dicey.

Some people vehemently believe its just another channel. Some say its about the collaboration. (Or its just the same people stating it at different stages of realization). Some say its about the behaviors (some look narrowly at Gamification), though limited only to user experience of the application interface. Even if they are correct about behaviors, that’s not something enterprise IT has been bothered too much about before. Sociology doesn’t make much sense to IT. They are more comfortable with change management: “Here, go attend this training about using your new CRM system and ensure you fill out your sales data diligently. I will run weekly team review meetings and if you fall behind in entering that data, I will have a one on one with you.

To me the word Social itself is about the human behavior, state of mind. We are hard wired to be social, to be mindful of oneself and our interconnectedness. Our ability to be collectively creative is unique amongst the various species and that is what lured me to Social in the first place, though I am a technologist. However the Adam Smiths and Taylors of the economics and business management world have made us all lay too great an importance on efficiencies alone and thus create silos of perfection. But I digress, yet again.

The result of this confusion about what Social entails has stymied many a progress in various big enterprises. And thus I have to time and again explain to my clients about the various benefits of Social to business, the various use cases where they can fit. And over these five years of tinkering, thinking, talking and connecting ideas about Social for building customer solutions I think I can see a pattern emerging in all my discussions off late when I am helping people envision solutions. I have come to thinking of this pattern as Social Construction.

Social Construction is a borrowed term from Sociology; actually there are two different terms – social constructivism and social constructionism – and they can be quite confusing by themselves, especially for technologists (but if you are still interested, please do read this primer: http://www.control-z.com/czp/pgs/soccon.html). And I liked this term because it also, to my mind, gels with the concept of Value Co-Creation.

To give you an easier to grasp example, consider Barn Raising. In the rural North America, until about a hundred odd years ago people in a village / community would all pour in their efforts and resources to raise a barn for a farmer. This seemingly altruistic deed depended upon generalized exchange or what is popularly known as pay it forward.

Telugu movie watchers, especially Chiranjeevi fans would remember the movie Tagore Stalin (Thanks Sadhu Srinivas Rao for the correction) where the protagonist does good deeds by helping total strangers and asks them not to thank him, rather help three other strangers and ask them to do the same. Languishing for a long time that his idea did not take off, in the climax of the movie it is shown how the whole state has benefited from this grass roots, anonymous, movement. But I digress, this is becoming an irritating habit.

Barn raising is still practiced by the Amish, but I am not asking you to eschew technology. To the contrary, I in fact want to help you figure out how these new technologies help you build new solutions leveraging the power of social – technologies as well as behaviors.



My current concept of Social Construction builds upon a few categories of solution ideas that leverage social computing:

  1. Social Mimicry – take existing digital assets on own digital real estate to social sites
  2. Social Layer – add elements of social computing to existing digital assets on own sites
  3. Social Collaboration – harness the power of community and add workflow magic to it
  4. Social Insights – harness insights by mashing up data from social and traditional channels
  5. Social Modeling – build applications from the ground up by adding social modeling to SDLC

Social Mimicry is basically catering to the same old business needs but by leveraging the new capabilities. Which in simplest terms might mean taking your loan calculator from your own web site and providing it as a Facebook app. Or something similar. Or it could mean building newer interfaces to your older infrastructure so that people are able to access the behind the scenes power of mainframes over social sites.

Social Layer is about enabling social elements or features on your existing assets. Think products/services from vendors like AboutEcho.com or BazaarVoice.com. Or Cognizant’s intranet unifying OneCognizant application’s Social Layer that we have developed to enable even Peoplesoft’s boring time sheet entry become a bit more social. You can like, add comment and recommend an app via the social layer that sits like a horizontal navigation menu on top of these traditional enterprise applications. You might want to call it widgetization.

Social Collaboration, though I am not a great fan of the redundant term, is a term I am prone to use to represent the difference between mere community/social platform and a platform where people can get social and yet get the job done. To get things done though you need to consider workflows, goals and objectives, todos and tasks, notes and ideas, assignments and deadlines, SLAs and triggers. Think along those lines for a bit more and suddenly you are talking about a Business Process Management or Case Management or Project Management system.

Most community installations, internal or external facing, are akin to a water cooler or office canteen or coffee shops. People socialise there, sure, but they are also able to serendipitously come out with creative solutions because they bumped into people. But they can’t get their day to day work done there. It’s far too noisy and distracting to get things done. For that they need to get back to their cubicles (unless their company believes in open spaces to foster creativity and collaboration in the offline world too). And the digital equivalent of the cubicle is your workstation and the various enterprise applications. But unlike your physical work place where you can still get to interact with the person across the cubicle, or just spend a moment to socialise through the walls, you cannot do those intermittent social interaction over an enterprise system of record. Thus you use different systems to work and to socialise in your intranet. That’s not how you behave in the physical world, do you? The other important question in Social Collaboration is how do you reduce noise, or rather, to borrow a term from communications engineering, improve Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR)? How do you make it more relevant, more contextual, so that it helps in getting things done rather than distracting you from it? I digressed only a bit, I hope.

Social Insights refers to the mashing up of data from the social and traditional channels, analysing them and getting better answers to existing questions or being able to ask newer questions. Mash up web metrics with social data or sales data with social mentions and sentiments. Do a trend analysis. Figure out intentions too probably. You could also leverage Social Collaboration to collaboratively interpret newer sets of data/trends/analysis reports as well as initiate actions based on these insights. HR, Sales, Marketing, Product Development, just about everybody in the organization could benefit from these. And you don’t necessarily need Hadoop instances to help you with the Social Insights. Social Data need not be Big Data to be useful.

Social Modeling brings in new perspectives in developing new enterprise applications and systems. When combined with the traditional use case, data flow and process modeling, social modeling can help applications and systems leverage the intrinsic motivational factors of the various actors, who are not only intentional but also social. This is still a pretty far out concept for most people and needs a whole new set of tools and practices to enter a typical SDLC. Actually, considering how Design Thinking, Value Network Mapping, Jobs To Be Done, Desire Engine, etc. seem to be more successful in catering to the individual goals as well as the interdependence of the users rather than what a few people think a system should be allowed to do (which is what is captured in a typical requirements gathering session) I think even the SDLC itself needs a relook. We need more Empathy in the application design & development process. And social collaboration platforms can themselves be used during SDLC, including for Social Modeling probably. But that’s all in the future. I have not found many takers, yet.



Mindmap about Social Construction.



The above mind map captures my thought process on how I evolved the concept. This is no where complete or finished. This is merely the starting point. I hope there are further discussions in collaboratively defining and refining this concept. I welcome your inputs, feedback and insights.

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