Are we still talking about Tags or Taxonomies?

Sometimes its easy to forget that things that are settled in your mind, are still unclear to others. This is especially true when you are immersed in an organisation that uses social collaboration as the main form of communication, when a lot of the world still uses email only.

So when I was asked recently whether tags should be standardised, it rather took me aback. But then I remembers that 10 years ago, much heated debate and excitement was  provoked by tagging philosophy. In fact, one of my earliest social bookmarks was this 2005 article on Tagging and Why it Matters by David Weinberger at Harvard in which he argues that:

…the biggest obstacle to KM achieving its vision of making all information available to everyone in the organization was in fact the difficulty of building and maintaining large classification systems. Even then, such systems never represent everyone’s way of thinking about things. Tagging, on the other hand, doesn’t require a team of Information Architects to argue for years over whether the right term is “natural language processing,” “language parsers,” or “nlp.” Users can use whatever term works for them…

The conclusion I have come to over the years is that tags and taxonomies are different things: both have value, and both are good for certain purposes. This is very visible in platforms like WordPress, where a blog post can be assigned both categories (a classification system the blog owner creates) and tags (applied more informally with greater variety and changing over time). We also argued interminably about things like whether they should be case sensitive (is “conservative” the same as “Conservative” as a label, but also what will people type when searching?) In fact, I blogged about tagging back in 2012 in the importance of tagging.

Ultimately what sold me on tags as the more important tool was the fact that they can reflect the needs of different user communities and evolve as those needs change (and no-one was even talking about being agile then). So, taking the example of an organisation I came across recently, SEPA means Scottish Environment Protection Agency to one group of people and Single Euro Payments Area to another. Does that mean one of them has to change the terminology they use and the way they label things? Nor practical. You can, of course, create a hierarchy (“environment/sepa”, “payments/sepa”), but that puts content in silos – and then if you happen to be in the wrong place when looking for something you will not find it. In general, promiscuous tagging is recommended to address this issue – so if I tag something with “sepa, single, euro, payments, area, eu, eurozone”, then even if my “sepa” search comes up with a whole load of stuff about payments, refining it with “environment” will get rid of them.

One thing to remember is that the flexibility of tagging doesn’t mean standards will not emerge. Displaying a type ahead list of tags to choose from is one way this happens in enterprise social platforms like IBM Connections, but even more critically the whole point is that the tags reflects the terminology that the users are used to using to refer to whatever is being tagged – so they naturally use the same terms (or learn to use the same terms by observing what others do). The alternative (forcing everyone to use a specific term) has a significant disadvantage that it means that anyone who doesn’t understand the terminology cannot effectively find anything – whereas if they were able to discover a few things that have also been labelled using the terminology they know, they can then be led to the right terminology by seeing the tags on the content they do find.

Now this doesn’t mean that categorisation is worthless. It has valid uses (just like Folders – which are basically categorisation of files). However, as it turns out, tags can be used to implement categories but not vice versa. Typically a standard prefix is used to indicate a category within tags – and, as discussed before, complex categorisation requires a hierarchy anyway. So using the tags “org.environment.sepa” and “org.payments.sepa” gives you a way of providing very specific access to content – at the cost of intellectual complexity: why would someone interested in European financial settlements know whether to look for “org.payments.sepa” rather than “org.eurozone.sepa”? However as long as the “sepa” tag is also used, they would pretty quickly realise that the the results all contained either “org.environment.sepa” and “org.payments.sepa” and so know which one to use in future.

Once you get used to this approach, you discover that tags are a great way of refining sepatagcloudsearches (in IBM Connections, by clicking on the tag list on the left hand side of results). So you can quickly refine a free text search by clicking on a tag: e.g. if “sepa” finds a load of both payments and environmental stuff, clicking on “environment” produces a relevant set of results. Or if you don’t find what you want, you can remove “environment” and add “scottish” or “scotland” instead until you do get what you are looking for. This approach also works well starting with a categorisation search (“org.environment.sepa” to get all content related to SEPA, then click the tag “waste” if you want information related to that topic).

The good thing about using tags is that they can change as the terminology changes (have you ever had your department renamed?). The bad thing about using tags is that they will change as terminology changes. In the short term, that is handled by searching for multiple tags. In the longer term, relevant content either gets retagged as needed (as people realise they had to use the old tag to find it, and so add the new one as well) or gets systematically retagged by the content owner (by searching for the old tag, and then adding the new tag to those objects found which are still relevant) – yes, that requires some effort, but will be done if doing so provides value (and time will hopefully not be wasted on it if it does not).

Which leads to my last thought, which is a generic response to questions of the form ‘should I use “colour” or “color” as the tag?’ The answer is to ask the question “why are you tagging it?” If the answer is just so you can find it again, use whichever tag you will search on. If you want other people to find it, then try to imagine what they will search for (which often means using both, in this case so that both British and Americans will find your content).

To conclude then, my recommendation is: tag everything promiscuously with the audience for your tags in mind; create taxonomies when it makes sense to formally categorise data, and implement them as structured tags (and then make sure there is effort and governance to manage them going forward).

Secret Code Breakers and Public Social Media

Around 10 years ago, I went to Bletchley Park, home of Station X and the British code breakers of the Second World War who cracked the Enigma cipher, shortened the Second World War and layed the foundations of computing as we know it today.

A few years later I encountered Dr. Sue Black on Social Media as she launched her campaign to save BP for the nation (SavingBletchleyPark.org), then shared a stage with her at a BCS event and subsequently helped crowdfunding her book: Saving Bletchley Park (which was officially launched in paper form last week, having been available as an eBook for a while). As a supporter I've had my copy for a while, but it was only when I took a few days vacation after Easter that I had the time to read it.

Book Cover

In the book, you don't just learn what it was like to work in a top secret, code breaking organisation during World War 2, and how to run an effective social media campaign in the modern day, but also get insights into BP's influence in creating computers as we know them today, the crucial importance of the Women of Bletchley Park and some of Sue's other efforts to promote women in IT.

Sue and her co-writer Steve Colgan skilfully interweave the anecdotes and stories of real life Bletchley Park veterans with Sue's own story: from her first visit to BP, through her initial campaigning in the tradition media, to her discovery of Twitter and subsequent recognition as both a social media guru and key saviour of Bletchley Park. Vivid, first hand accounts are the common characteristic of both stories, making the book both informative and engaging – not just for anyone interested in history, but also those wanting to use social media to create history today. As a first hand account by one of those figuring out how to use Twitter effectively in its early days, it contains many tips for those wanting to utilise it effectively for campaigning today.

When I came to put Saving Bletchley Park onto its bookshelf after reading, I discovered that I have a small library of Bletchley Park books and was reminded that the The National Museum of Computing was closed when I visited the park – so it's definitely time for a return visit.

To get your copy of Saving Bletchley Park, visit Amazon, your favourite eBook store, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop.

 

Social Collaboration in Government

A while back I wrote a blog post on Social Business in the Public Sector where I discussed a keynote presentation John Swinney, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, made at Public Sector Digital Scotland, where he:

… clearly set out the need and the promise of the digital age. To move from government programs that are what they are, and either match a citizen’s needs or don’t, to delivering the personalised services that each individual citizen requires.

I was reminded of this listening to him present the keynote at ONE Public Sector Scotland last week, where he discussed progress made, the importance of enabling public sector workers to be empowered to do the right thing for the individual in front of them, and the need to become “relentlessly person-centred”.

In my social business masterclass later in the day, I tried to visualise this concept. Pre-digital, government programs were “one size fits all”:

But in the digital world, the citizen should be able to select exactly the services they need from a menu on offer:

However, you can only go so far down this path through technology, by providing a single front end that unifies services – or even by integrating back end services to smoothly move the user from one web site to another to deliver a coherent user journey that takes the citizen to what they need without them having to understand the internal structure of the government agencies providing it. To truly deliver an exceptional citizen experience, you need the government agencies involved, or more accurately the employees within them, to collaborate seamlessly as well.

 

This isn’t just about coordinating applications across the government web sites. Or even simply about aligning policies and procedures across government departments. Rather the issue is that: not only does the public not care which government department, agency, or public sector body is providing the service they need, but they want to be able to access the knowledge and expertise of public sector employees without worrying about which bit of the government pays them.

The good news is that responding to this desire not only produces more effective government services, it can also create more efficient ones. Initiatives like the Government Digital Service and G-Cloud have made good progress in reducing the cost of public services while improving their effectiveness. Now it is time to take things to the next level. To move beyond common web sites and infrastructure to start to integrate government employees into a single ecosystem of public servants focussed on better servicing the needs of the citizen.

This isn’t a new concept, like it is in some commercial companies where competition not collaboration is embedded in the culture. Collaboration is natural in public services, but what is needed is a focus on exploiting the latest social collaboration technologies to create an environment where expertise can be reused instead of replicated, knowledge can be shared as a by product of users’ day to day activities, and inter-departmental collaboration can reduce the cost of delivering services.

Cross departmental collaboration, cross agency collaboration, cross public sector collaboration – and, indeed, collaboration beyond to include local government, the third sector, delivery partners and small & medium enterprises who can help to service the citizen’s needs. The first challenge for government was integrating services – the next is integrating people.

In IBM, when we think about how public services can be taken to the next level we build stories about how cross government collaboration could save costs and change the lives of citizens. Could we help departments respond to freedom of information requests faster and at lower cost? Could we make it painless for a citizen to complete their tax return? Could we make it easier to claim benefits by removing barriers while reducing the chance of fraud? Could collaboration between local government social services, the police and school teachers save the life of a child?

Now that would be something to be proud of.

 

Social Business Trends for 2014

Traditionally I use the journey back from IBM Connect to put together a blog post based on buzz at the event to forecast key trends for the year(s) ahead (take a look at my 2012 and 2013 predictions and see if you think they worked out – most of them continue to be major areas of focus).

So, following on from the review of 2013 that I wrote on the way out to Orlando, here are the new themes that I expect to dominate in 2014:

Social Business Design

Social Mail: The most exciting new announcement at Connect 2013 was IBM Mail Next. Until now, the infusion of social collaboration into the mail client has built out from the mail box. It has taken the form of sidebars, business cards, links and embedded experiences that seamlessly take the user from their mail to adjacent social content. IBM Mail Next reimagines the inbox in terms of the conversations you have having with other people and the actions and projects they are part of. By thinking about the context of the conversations, rather than the mechanism of the email messages, and by applying analytics and task management capabilities to help you keep track of your different activities, IBM Mail Next offers a user-centric tool for managing collaboration.

Social Intranet: IBM Mail Next is browser or mobile app based, and is part of a broader trend to move all forms of collaboration, from collaborative document editing to real-time multimedia meetings, into pure browser applications that are also surfaced as mobile apps. It has become clear that users prefer to do their collaborating from mobile devices, so this aiding the transition to a post PC era whilst significantly reducing desktop support costs (one of the biggest parts of the IT Budget). Indeed, bring your own device is rapidly showing that users would like to choose their own tools, and where organisations embrace this they can improve the user experience at the same time as reducing costs. All of which makes the Social Intranet increasingly the core of enterprise IT: a single integration layer that provides role based, personalised access to applications, content and processes to each individual user via a browser or their mobile device.

Social Ecosystems: But in today’s world, an intranet isn’t enough. Modern enterprises can’t deliver what they need to through internal collaboration alone. Companies need their ecosystem of suppliers, partners and channel to deliver their brand value, and close collaboration with those organisations is critical to success. So just as the mobile trend is challenging the traditional concept of the corporate firewall, since most of the devices that need access to it spend most of their time outside of the firewall, so the need to provide access to applications, content and processes by external parties is forcing organisations to question their approach to the enterprise perimeter – and in the process giving them the opportunity to position Software as a Service (SaaS) as a natural extension to their intranet environment as part of a hybrid cloud infrastructure.

Social Projects: But this trend towards external collaboration with your ecosystem cannot be addressed by simply throwing open the gates to your network. What organisations need to do is define specific projects to deliver identified business value and then design a solution to address them. This is very different from the way IT traditionally create enterprise-wide infrastructures – but again, Hybrid SaaS comes to the rescue, avoiding the need to spin up new server infrastructures but instead reusing integration that has been done with SaaS services to create a model that accelerates return on investment by deferring costs until business value is realised.

We are also seeing a revolution in the way we design these projects – no longer thinking about the data and applications you have available and how can they be delivered to the users, but thinking about the user journey required by the multiple actors within and outside the organisation to execute a required process to deliver maximum business value. Implementation is then about putting together those user journey (by integrating content, applications and processes from the intranet, leveraging the service oriented architectures of the last decade and cloud services of this decade) and delivering them through compelling browser and mobile app experiences using open, standards based integration.

Users will access many of the processes delivered via these social projects from their new social mail environments, the social intranet will integrate them with the resources needed and the participants will not just be internal but spread across the whole social ecosystem – as a result driving new levels of personal and organisational productivity by making business processes easier, faster, cheaper and more satisfying to use.

Social Business in 2013

The last year has been pivotal for Social Business as organisations shift from being concerned about the issues that the new Social, Mobile, Analytics & Cloud (SMAC) technologies raise for their IT strategy, to accepting that they are irreversible and adapting strategies to accommodate them. The question is now when and how each organisation should embrace them.

There is an emerging acceptance that sharing knowledge across organisations will increase their ability to deliver more effectively on their business priorities – and that better tools than email are needed to raise users’ productivity and leverage the organisation’s talent effectively. Have you noticed that job roles with Knowledge Management in their title have suddenly started changing to say something like Social Media? The question now is which tools and platforms best address this need and how to introduce them.

Companies that would have said, only a couple of years ago, that their strategy for mobile was Blackberry, and that it wasn’t going to change any time soon (well, apart from some senior executives that were allowed to connect their iPads to the network – in an echo of the way Blackberry penetrated enterprises by winning the hearts and minds of senior managers), are now making bold statements that “Bring Your Own device is our strategy.” It’s just a question of when and how.

Similarly, Big Data and Cloud have become acceptable technology choices and organisations are working on their IT strategies to figure out how they fit and where to prioritise them.

Social Business is rapidly moving from the latest fashion fad to business as usual. But does that work? Can organisations successfully adopt collaborative ways of working without changing their command and control hierarchies, and their competitive organisational structures and employee compensation schemes? Can the commoditisation of the users access point and shift to user selected and managed devices be reconciled with traditional “locked down” IT management? How will employees and customers privacy concerns be addressed when using analytics to derive information from every fragment of content they produce and every conversation they have? How will we change traditional views of enterprise security management and confidentiality regimes when, not only is the data being stored in some Cloud service somewhere, but we are pointing powerful analytics at it specifically to find new insights while providing transparent access, as far as possible, to all employees from the privately owned devices in their pocket, so they can use it to increase company profits?

Or is it true that social business technologies are disruptive, and therefore will disrupt current enterprise structures, processes and policies as they are adopted. Is this an inevitable part of becoming a Social Business?

Here is my favourite graphic from 2013:

It makes the point that social business is primarily a cultural change, with significant organisational and operational implications, but one that can only be made if it is supported by the right technology. It’s a bit like the cultural shift from the Internet being something you used when sitting at a desk in front of a PC, to something use while walking down the street. It took the right package technology (initially the iPhone and App Store, then it’s smartphone siblings and their ecosystems) to enable that shift to “suddenly happen” – even though the 3G networks and devices with similar capabilities (for example Nokia’s Communicator range) had been around for a while without catalysing the change.

As a sweeping generalisation, I see companies that use a proper, integrated Social Business platform from the leading vendors are generating successful adoption of the cultural and process changes they are looking for, while those that think that can make this transformation with tools they already have, or legacy technologies that just offer document sharing and communications, are failing.

Proper social platforms are built from the bottom up to facilitate effective collaborative working, have deep embedded social analytics to surface the information users want and can integrate with existing business applications through open standards to add value to existing processes. They are not, primarily, a content platform (indeed they should be able to integrate with and use the content platforms an organisation already has in place), rather they are a platform for building relationships between employees (and between employees and partners or customers), and for discovering experts and knowledge (whether that knowledge is in a document internally, or externally, or exists only in someone’s head). They are people centric, not document centric, collaboration platforms.

In 2013 we also saw the start of change in the market. Social business discussions had previously been focussed in two areas: Marketing, to engage externally via social media, and IT, as a better collaborative infrastructure than email. Now there are enough proof points of the value of social business techniques to get attention from all parts of the business: from the sales force to customer support, from HR to financial planning, from procurement to catering.

So Social Business technology vendors will tell you that 2013 saw the rise of Line of Business (LoB) as the key influencer in purchases, rather than IT. Sometimes signing the cheques (especially for cloud based services) and sometimes driving IT’s procurement priorities. This has implications for how technologies are acquired, since LoB are project based whereas IT are focussed on infrastructures for use across the organisation.

Projects often are not large or important enough to justify the purchase of an entire enterprise infrastructure, and that has led to a recurring theme in discussions with IT as they discover that the company is all ready running 4, or 5, or 10, different social business platforms for different projects (some in cooperation with IT, some independent but with acquiescence of IT, and quite a few without the knowledge of IT). Not only is this causing increased financial costs, but it also creating silos of knowledge and reinforcing exactly the sorts of barriers within the organisation that social collaboration is trying to remove.

This trend is also driving one of the characteristics of the age of Social IT. Big, enterprise wide, mega-projects, fully costed (and with all the risks taken out) are no longer seen as the way to succeed. Rather the right approach is to start many, small projects and evolve them, accepting the innovation risk of failure and investing in and developing the projects that prove they can deliver real value to the business. The mantra is that of continuous proces improvement, not wholesale process reengineering.

This is leading to organisations starting to put a strategy in place of acquiring an enterprise infrastructure which can start small and grow, hosting the evolution of divergent existing social projects, and being used as the platform for new ones. It is starting to require organisations to rethink their security policies and integration architectures to allow projects run on external cloud platforms, so as to avoid large, up-front investments (even if they could afford them – simply creating a large project drives behaviours and metrics which are ill-suited to the sort of agile, collaborative organisations that innovate successfully and outpace their competition).

Integration is key here. Not just with existing content and applications, but also across different solution domains. For example, it is increasingly becoming clear that the separation of marketing’s social media activities from internal social collaboration platforms has negative consequences. Organisations are realising that they cannot get benefits from their social listening if they cannot effectively communicate the insights it generates to the employees who need to understand them (and act on them). This requires internal collaboration with the employees that can take advantage of the insight to improve the company’s products, services and processes – and who knows where in the organisation they might sit?

And anyway, enterprises are starting to realise that external social engagement isn’t just something just a skilled social media team do. More and more of their employees are present on social media already and they understand that they can use interactions through social networks with their customers, partners and suppliers to do their jobs better and deliver better business results.

Gartner calls Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud a “nexus of forces,” which encapsulates the idea of synergy between them – the sum is greater than the whole. But look back previous waves of related technologies – like the Internet, the World Wide Web, email and laptops, that enabled nomadic workers, new corporate structures and globalisation. That wave of change was also synergistic with wider trends (e.g. affordable mass air transportation, 24 hour satellite news and the dominance of free market capitalism) to drive significant business changes – and with them broader cultural changes.

All of which set the stage for what came next: social media, always on mobile employees, vast quantities of unstructured data and utility computing available at low cost in the cloud.

Today’s vision of social business won’t be frozen in time and gradually adopted by all organisations – it will continue to evolve as each organisation adopts it, as each vendor evolves their offerings, as each entrepreneur brings a new idea to the market, and as each individual user provides feedback on what they are using, to contribute collectively to innovation in the space. The rate of change shows no sign of slowing down.

In the early 1990’s I worked for a company (Soft-Switch) that had great success connecting corporations’ separate, siloed email systems together. By the end of the 90’s that business didn’t exist. Not only did most organisations run only one enterprise email platform, but SMTP integrated the remaining systems seamlessly with each other and with applications.

Social Business platforms are still at the maturity level of those early 90’s email systems. They have a lot of evolving to do. There will be a lot of consolidation I the market. So businesses need to invest at the enterprise level with a social platform that will survive (and IBM is clearly the market leader).

I asked above whether Social Business will disrupt current enterprise structures, processes and policies? I think it is starting to do this already in some companies (like IBM). The interesting question is whether it will deliver on its promise and give those companies enough of a competitve edge that the rest will have no choice but to follow their lead.