Is business ready for social software?


CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- The emergence of social software such as blogging tools present businesses with an opportunity to transform the way they operate -- if they don't try to completely water down the technology.

That was one key message echoed by speakers and audience members here Tuesday at the Symposium on Social Architecture held at Harvard University.

"There's a huge creative renaissance possible for businesses today with the advent of social software," said Stowe Boyd, president of Corante, a blog aggregator that organized the conference in partnership with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard.

"When you adopt bottom-up technology, eventually everything becomes bottom up," said Boyd, who acknowledged that he is not the cubicle-type after working for years at large and even employees of well-known tech vendors such as IBM and HP. Social software discussed included not just blog programs but also community-oriented Web sites such as Flickr and

The conference, held in a Harvard Law School classroom, oozed casualness, as speakers donned jeans and hats, and repeatedly encouraged attendees to join in the discussion. Attendees included a mix of social software developers, bloggers armed with laptops (see a collection of blogs on the event

During a session titled "Is Business Ready for Social Sofware?" audience members raised concerns about how companies are treating blogs and if they will treat newer social software much like they have treated e-mail and instant messaging. Their contention is that companies sap the spontaneity and creative thinking that such technologies can enable by over-managing them, such as by installing corporate-approved instant messaging that can't be used to interact with people outside the company or using different IM systems.

But panelist Seth Goldstein , a serial entrepreneur who is currently CEO of Root Markets, said there is reason for optimism about social software making its mark at businesses because APIs are making it much easier to take advantage of the programs.

"The permissions with which individuals and companies are exposing access to their data has really opened up business opportunities in the social space," he said.

Fellow panelist Kaliya Hamlin, known to some as "Identity Woman " for her work on user-centric identity management, said the Web is evolving beyond a series of interlinked pages to connected data across subsections of those pages.  "We're looking ahead at how that data Web will shape businesses."

One of the big questions promoters of social software might need to help companies understand is the "return on participation" related to using social software, Goldstein said. He noted how "we all work for Google" every time we conduct a search and strengthen the search engine's algorithm, even though we don't necessarily get paid for doing it. But he argued that the return-on-participating with social software becomes self-evident when, for example, users share tags and learn from each other.

Boyd suggested that providing CEOs with a dashboard that would illustrate for them the sorts of information being tagged by say, a company's competitive intelligence employees, could go a long way toward helping to justify use of social software in the eyes of upper management.

Hamlin said that social software should prove useful as more companies adopt a "Hollywood model" of project management where teams are frequently disbanded and reformed in different configurations.

One audience member said that much social software is a bit too "loose" for corporate types today, but that if companies can start to define certain tags as useful to the business that they might find the software can work for them.

Hamlin warned that even if companies don't adopt social software, customers will. She cited an effort by environmental-friendly consumers who are uniting to take control of the sort of data that retailers would typically own exclusively. Using such data in unison, she said, groups of consumers could push back against retailers to get better deals.

Boyd, the session moderator, tried to get panelists and audience members to cite examples of businesses that are transforming themselves through the use of social software, but his pleas went largely ignored, aside from the mention of Disney using blogs internally as a communications tool.

The conference also included sessions on Web-based civics and social software's impact on the media, among other topics.

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