The Importance of Tagging

I was on a panel discussing Social Business at ICWSM-12 this week (they recorded a video so I hope it will be available for replay soon). We got some great questions. This led to a discussion about what features of the social collaboration platform were most important for finding and leveraging experts in an organisation.

Roja Bandari tweeted a quote from my answer:

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It reminded me that I had been intending for some time to blog about some of the essential but underrated features of enterprise social collaboration platforms – and tagging is a great place to start (recommendations is another, that was highlighted by Igor Perisic of LinkedIn in his keynote at the same event – did you know that 50% of new LinkedIn connections come from recommendations?). Many companies think they can successfully implement social collaboration using previous generation collaboration platforms which do not have these essential capabilities – and then wonder why they are not adopted in the way they expect.

So, why is tagging so important? Well first, let’s make it clear what I mean by tagging in this context.

  1. The ability for users to assign free format words to objects. These are not selected from a restricted taxonomy, but rather allow users to associate words that mean most to them in their context. This allows the tags used to change over time as vocabularies, technologies or practices evolve, it makes it possible for different communities to use tags relevant to them (e.g. I might just think of something as a “Daffodil” while a biologist would label it “Narcissus” and add additional tags for its species) and gives users of different languages the opportunity to create local language tags (perhaps as well as international ones).
  2. Tags can be assigned to any object: a blog post, a shared file, a person, a community, a wiki page, an arbitrary URL, etc.
  3. Tags are not only assigned by the owner when an object is created, but also by any user who finds the object (so they can make it easy to find it again) with the effect of greatly increasing the pool of tags across the organisation (and also ranking how interesting objects are to users based on how many tag them).
  4. When tags are assigned, the system should show suggestions (based on what other users have used to tag this object), using Web 2.0 techniques for type-ahead to make suggestions as the tag is typed (because knowing what tags others have used helps the community to converge on a common set of tags without introducing lots of small variations in spelling, abbreviation, etc.)
  5. Users need to be educated that they shouldn’t try to choose one, “correct tag” but rather “more is better” and to think about the different ways they might want to find the object in the future.
  6. The system should make the tags as useful as possible to users to encourage their use. It should show tag clouds (not lists of tags) that can be easily searched by users (showing the most popular by default) and should allow easy filtering of large lists of objects or results by simply clicking in the tag cloud.
  7. Enterprise wide search of all tags should be provided (rather than having to search separately for different content types of in different repositories) and results of all kinds should be displayed (blog posts, files, people, communities, wiki pages, forum discussions, web pages, etc., etc.)

Two key points here. First, tagging people as well as content (and allowing other people to tag other people they find, rather than relying on people to tag themselves). This is one cornerstone of expertise location (knowing that X has helped other people with topic Y, even though they may not see it as their area of expertise, and providing a way to compensate for lazy people who do not tag themselves – automatic tag generation, e.g. based on courses people have taken, can also be useful here).

This allows results to show both people and content. In practice, users are often searching for a document containing the answer to their question or if that does not exist the person who can help them find it. This reminds me of another underrated capability, the business card. Whenever you see a persons name associated with content (the author, or someone who comment on it, recommended it or downloaded it) you should be able to hover over the name and immediately find out key information about that person, like who they are or how to contact them – and also what other relevant content they have shared.

The second key point is the tagging of URLs (or web page addresses). Very often you come across useful content that is not inside the enterprise social platform (e.g. a news article on a web page, a file in an enterprise content management system, a profile on LinkedIn or Facebook, perhaps even a Tweet). Most solutions call the process of tagging an arbitrary web page social bookmarking as it is similar to creating a bookmark in your browser, but you are doing it on the social platform and so contributing to the total set of bookmarks (links) available across whole the enterprise (for example, allowing me just now to quickly find the most popular of the 321 web pages that IBMers have tagged with “tagging” – the answer, inevitably, being Wordle).

Providing a simply “bookmarklet” for popular browsers that allows users to quickly and easily tag a page and save it as a public bookmark is a key capability all social collaboration solutions should provide. Users soon realise that this lets them simply tag all the web pages they come across that they might be interested in going back to in the future – and then to use the tag cloud to actually find them again with minimal effort (which I certainly couldn’t do if I tried to keep my >3,000 tagged pages as bookmarks in my browser!)

The social bookmarklet implements a couple of key requirements for essential social collaboration. Firstly it generates the maximum social capital with the minimum effort (I see this web page and I would like to tag it so I can find it again – but as a side effect I have contributed to a set of tags which provide even more value to all employees across the company). A well implemented bookmarklet takes this even further – for example by allowing the bookmark to be automatically added to one or more Community spaces the user belongs to (sharing the link more widely and helping keep the community fresh), by letting the user to provide a few lines of text and have a blog post automatically created explaining why they find this page to be interesting to all the people reading their blog, and by facilitating the creation of an activity around the link so the user can manage any follow up actions. Creating as much social content as easily as possible is key to effective transmission of discovered knowledge to other people in the organisation who need it.

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In addition, the bookmarklet allows a user to generate social content from their browser when viewing a web page – without needing to go somewhere else. This is an example of the overall need of social collaboration solutions to integrate with the users’ desktop applications. If the user had to copy the bookmark, navigate to another page, open a form, paste in the bookmark and add the tags, they are far less likely to do it. In the same way they need to be able to save a file directly from their document editor into the social file sharing repository (or drag and drop an attachment from their mail client or a file from their desktop), post to their blog from their favourite word processor and post a status update from where they are working. Ease of use doesn’t just mean being able to figure out how to navigate an application, it means being able to do what the user wants from the context where they need to do it with the minimum of clicks.

I often talk of social bookmarks (or, more likely, of tagging, since I think it better reflects what we are doing here) as “Indexing the Intranet” (although, in practice, it is indexing the parts of the Internet that your colleagues find useful as well). Most users have a negative perceptions of enterprise search – and one that is historically justified since the nature of intranet content and they way it is linked does not offer the search engines the context that cross-site links in the public Internet provide to Google so it can build its page ranks so it can offer user the most relevant responses (alongside those most lucrative to Google). Tagging pages addresses this need since it can let a search engine show at the top of the list the hits that were most often tagged by all the other employees across the company (as long as the enterprise search solution is able to use this information.

That said, once the social collaboration platform is populated with a rich set of tags, many users stop using enterprise search and instead use the social search capabilities – since social bookmarks provide reach to find content outside of the social platform (including on the broader Intranet since the user searching wants the best answer, irrespective of where it can be found) which are displayed along with the blog entries, wiki pages and files shared on the intranet. Also, social search finds both people and content for the topic, and makes it easy to move between documents, web content and experts until the user has found the information they need to do their job effectively.

Finally, tags are also a key input to the social platforms recommendation engine. Not just explicitly (e.g. finding new content be recommend because its tag matches the users tag) but also explicitly (e.g. understanding that users who are tagged the same way, or who create posts with the same tags, have common interests and so are probably more interested in each others content). Meanwhile surfacing the links between users, or between users and communities, enhances other employees ability to find alternative experts when the person they want to contact is not available.

Hopefully this post has made it clear why I find tagging (both in its explicit form and as an aspect of social bookmarks) be an essential capability of social collaboration platforms. It also highlights recommendations, business cards, social bookmarking, integration with desktop applications and social search as key capabilities required to deliver not just knowledge sharing, but also knowledge discovery (which ultimately, is the real objective of a social collaboration platform). IBM Connections provides all of these capabilities – which is why I believe it delivers social collaboration more effectively than most of its competitors today.

I’ll plan on looking at a few more of its differentiating capabilities (from the perspective of the use cases they support) in future blog posts.

In the meantime, let me know what you think is the most useful feature of the social collaboration platform you use.

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Social Business in 2012

As I was leaving the IBM Connect and Lotusphere conferences in January, I had a conversation with someone (wish I remember who – remind me if it was you!) who said that what impressed them most about the conference this year, over last, is that it had changed from discussing what you could do with Social Business, to what people are doing. This is supported by the amazing number of customer speakers at the conference, both in the keynotes and break-out sessions, describing their experiences putting Social Business into proactive.

A year ago, on the flight back from Lotusphere 2011, I sketched out on an aircraft napkin the key technology "mega-trends" that I saw at the conference which, I believed, would drive rapid adoption of Social Business. I used the diagram many times through 2011, with some minor changes depending on context, until it evolved into a form that seemed to resonate with most audiences.

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The changes during the year first moved the Customers to the centre, where they belong, since I increasingly saw the need to serve customers better become the only reason social business projects (internal or external) were getting funded, then added empowerment of employees (expanding from exceptional web experiences to include exceptional work experiences) and partners (who are an essential part of today’s virtual enterprises).

That left space to reflect the dramatic shift in the Unified Communications market in 2011, as it became clear that UC is not just about unifying telephony with collaboration (e-mail and instant messaging) but also incorporating social collaboration into the users web or work experience. What I like to call "extending presence beyond the green dot". I don’t want to know that the person I am trying to contact is "away", I want to know that they have gone to lunch with a customer and will be back at 3pm. I don’t want to know that they are "offline", I want to know that they are on vacation for the next two weeks, or are travelling in Australia so they will only be online overnight. I don’t just want to know that they are not available, I want to be given a link to content they are sharing that might help me in their absence, or to people they work with who might be able to help in their absence.

This complements discussions I often have about the importance or putting content in the context of people . The "Business Card" represents the current state of the art in "Presence" for people, and includes whether the user is online or not; their current location (if shared); their last Status Update; direct access to ways to communicate with them (e-mail, instant messaging, click to dial, etc.); their full Profile (with more information about them, like their management structure, and connections to their colleagues); and their shared content (files, blogs, communities, wikis, etc.) This works the other way round when searching for and finding content, by placing what you find in the context of its author and people who have commented on it or recommended it – with a full Business Card available for each, allowing you to quickly ascertain the credibility and trustworthiness of the contributors and of commentators – and so of the content itself.

The power of this diagram is not the separate technology advances it describes (in social collaboration, mobile devices and cloud computing) but the way they interrelate. Two of my past managers and role models taught me lessons related to this: Mike Zisman (former CEO of Lotus) wrote a paper once called "Timing is Everything" and Jim Abbey (MD of Systems & Telecoms) used to say "if the Wright brothers had tried to build a plane that could carry 300 people at nearly the speed of sound with toilets fore and aft, they would have failed". It is the fact the Social, Mobile and Cloud are happening at the same time, and coincide with an economic crisis that is forcing every organisation to maximise the value of every single employee, that is creating a truly transformational pivot point in the way organisations work.

The important thing is not that these three trends are happening, but that they are happening at the same time.

The social networking products on the Internet that give us the model for social collaboration are all cloud based (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn). Smartphones would be completely pointless if there were no cloud services for them to access (local Apps soon get boring). We have reached the crossover point where more social networking updates are being done from mobile devices than PCs (as well as the point where more Smartphones & Tablets are being sold than PCs) and social networking really blossoms when it allows a user to record their reaction immediately and in multimedia (if you see a new billboard from your competitor you do not want to try to remember to send someone an message about it when you get back to the office – the moment is over then and you will forget – you want to send your marketing content a quick "tweet" with your thoughts at that moment – and preferably attach a photograph or video clip to it).

Now think about the implications of these technology developments. I talked to a customer last year who had launched a marketing initiative on Facebook in India. Not remarkable, you might think, but the interesting thing was that the marketing team had to do it from home, because they could not access Facebook in the office. I also met with a business team who had launched a new project using an external, cloud based collaboration platform because IT could not give them the capabilities they wanted in house. I know, from conversations in the canteen at another customer, that employees who cannot update Twitter from their desk PCs, just use their Smartphone.

The really disruptive thing about mobile devices and cloud based social collaboration is that IT can’t control them. If business units believe they can deliver better business outcomes by going round IT and using external services, they will. If those services are free, and deliver business value, then how can the company effectively control their use? It is beginning to dawn on IT organisations that if they do not deliver exceptional work experiences that enable their employees to deliver exceptional customer experiences, they will simply become irrelevant to the companies that pay their salaries and the business will start using external cloud services that help their employees to do their jobs better.

Sure, they still need the compliance team, the security team, the risk team – but those teams will be expanding their remit to manage use of external cloud services, as well as internal IT services. The more senior the person I talk to, the easier it becomes to convince them of the importance of Social Business. The Luddites are lower down in the organisation. Although they claim "management will never accept it," they are are simply wrong – senior management already "get it" and know they need to refocus middle management what their business needs to do to succeed. They are also wrong when they say "the users will never change the way they work" as those same users spend their evening on Skype talking to their grandchildren, on Twitter engaging with people who share their interests and sense of humour, on Facebook organising the team for the next pub quiz – and LinkedIn looking for their next job (perhaps with a more enlightened company that will provide them with tools that make their jobs easier).

So, my initial plan on the flight this year was to update the diagrams above for the next level of Social Business. But I decided not to do that yet. Those messages still resonate. In the words of Roy Amara (of the Institute for the Future) "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run." These trends have a way to run yet – and it will take years for many organisations to internalise them, invest in them and realise the benefits.

Of course, the ones that do it quickest will be the ones that gain competitive advantage from this transformation.

Instead, let me offer some thoughts on some additional technology shifts that will help to evolve these trends in 2012:

  • Social Analytics: I love the way IBM has added Recommendations to IBM Connections, and improved Search results by leveraging analytics, but this is just the start. IBM has a unique capability to leverage its Research organisation and deep skills in analytics, textual analysis and search to guide users to the people and knowledge that will help them to do their jobs better.

    Twenty years ago, the main problem IT was solving was giving users access to information. Today users have access to more information than they can possibly use, and the challenge is to give them just the information they need, when they need it. The answer to that challenge is not in the information, it is in the context – the relationship of information to people – and that is where IBM Connections is focussed. Further leveraging Social Analytics will increase Connections ability to deliver a Social Collaboration layer over existing content, processes and business applications that enables use cases which make employees more effective.

  • Unified Collaboration: After years of watching organisations struggle to make the investment required to deliver the clear benefits of Unified Communications to its users, it seems to me that UC is becoming a part of the social transformation. Presence is one aspect of the rich context that surrounds a user at a specific point in time. Once it is clear that someone has the expertise needed, providing an easy way to reach to them via telephony, video, audio chat or screen sharing are services that the social collaboration platform needs to provide.

    IBM achieved its market leadership in the social business because it didn’t start from the technology, it started from the business – the use cases that that help users to do their jobs better and, in the process, deliver a return on investment. Unified Communications has had limited success because organisations couldn’t articulate how it would make employees more effective. Even if there was an ROI, it could only be achieved if users changed their behaviour and companies doubted that would happen. Making UC part of the social transformation addresses this (and leverages the fact that YouTube and Skype are part of the public Internet’s social scene). For the enterprise, this combines more effective Context with the proven ROI from telephony & travel cost avoidance. But rethinking UC as a necessary component of social collaboration will only change the game if it is done from the perspective of making users’ working lives better by delivering on required use cases – rather than simply as a technology implementation to cut costs.

    UC simply isn’t about making telephone interoperate with your PC anymore. User’s don’t want to use a PC, they want a smartphone or tablet, and organisations don’t want the expense of managing complex PC workstations. An iPhone isn’t a telephone, it’s a multimedia, unified end point that allows me to communicate, collaborate and act at a distance. Sure, interoperability with the telephone network helps with adoption, but its not the point. One of the most revelatory moments of 2011 was when I sent an SMS to a neighbour on my new iPhone 4S. I suddenly realised that it had not sent an SMS. Both of us were using iPhones, and "it" figured out that iCloud could deliver the message – without me needing to pay for an SMS. Each user want all their collaborative interactions to "just work" as effectively as possible, and without worrying about the current context of the person/people they are interacting with. Smartphones are great for that. Unified Communications has changed its focus from figuring out how to make telephone work over the Internet to figuring out how to make Internet Services interoperate with Telephone Services. Now it needs to hide all that technology from the user, and just make communications and collaboration work over all media, independently of the end points of the participants. Which is great for IBM, as it is avowedly end point agnostic.

    An aside: When I wrote the Unified Communications Strategy for Lotus in the 1990s, I wanted to call it Unified Collaboration. That was a hard sell at a time when people had trouble raising their vision beyond Unified Messaging. Now its time has finally come. Users want one end point for all their communications and collaboration that integrated with the applications they use, and they want it to be device independent (across smartphones, tablets or PCs depending what device that is most convenient right now. That is an inherent part of the IBM Project Vulcan vision.

  • Video: The Internet has proven over and over again that it is easier to change the game than to evolve existing mechanisms. Skype showed us many years ago that you can dramatically increase the quality of communications by adding video to voice and instant messaging. YouTube rode the wave of video becoming a standard part of digital cameras and smartphones. Today, when an employee wants to share something that moves, or happens on their screen, they want to use video – and know that there is no reason why they should not. Enterprise Video isn’t about users going to a video-conference room to get an inferior version of being in the same room. It is about leveraging the cameras in their Smartphones and Laptops to make communication and collaboration better. The technology exists to deliver on these use cases today, and social collaboration platforms simply need to step up to using it.
  • E-mail Reduction: Not ever more e-mail, but less. As we educate users that they can find the people and information they need using the social collaboration solutions, there will be less and less need to send them information in case it is useful to them. This cultural change is the single biggest challenge facing companies adopting social transformation. How do you train users not to send e-mails unless they have a specific actionable need from a recipient who is not currently available for a real time conversation, and to use other mechanisms to communicate information in other circumstances? While making sure that necessary information flows and activities continue while the transition happens.

    This is going to take two things. The user experience we offer to employees needs to offer a coherent environment where they users can work with all of their communication and collaboration tools – e-mail, social and unified communications – on whatever device they are currently using (which is what IBM is enabling its customers to do in 2012). In addition, organisations are going to need to train their users to communicate and collaborate in a new way. Not by putting them in classrooms and giving them courses, but by educating them in every communication they send to them, by ensuring thought leaders demonstrate the appropriate behaviour, by measuring their managers based on how well their employees are making this change, and by deploying work environments, business processes and applications in a way that support this transformation. This is what we call Social Adoption, and it is not reasonable to expect every employee to figure out why it is a good idea for themselves. Organisations need to focus on explaining to their users the benefits of working this way – and removing the obstacles that exist to adopting these practices.

Today, the world is reorganising itself because of the disruptive impacts of Social, Mobile and Cloud. Organisational power structures are shifting as employees are being empowered to shape the companies they work for. The Agricultural Economy became the Industrial Economy and then the Information Economy. The 21st Century is seeing the rise of the Relationship Economy. A company is no longer about its brand(s) – it is now about its people and how they help its customers. In a social world, consumers don’t want to do business with companies, they want to interact with the individuals that comprise that company. Consumers no longer trust organisations – but they will continue to trust people. They will demand a relationship with your employees as a condition of doing business with you. It is no longer enough to make your customers feel special, you need to make each individual customer feel special, every time they interact with you.

IBM’s Social Business strategy is about enabling organisations to make the cultural shift to become Social Businesses. To let them build new relationships between their employees, new relationships with their partners, and a new type of relationship with their customers. It needs a new form of social work environment to allow employees to build and manage these relationships – but companies that achieve this cultural transformation are going to grow faster than their competition.