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The crucial role process innovation plays in social business

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The whole social business movement has suffered a bit of a lull in recent years.  When enterprise social technologies first arrived, they were met with lofty expectations of how they will unlock billions of dollars of productivity improvements, and even revolutionize the way we work.  Far be it for me to disagree with those statements, but it’s probably fair to say that those improvements haven’t materialized yet.

It’s resulted in social business drifting into what Gartner refer to as the trough of disillusionment, as those lofty expectations aren’t realized.  If we look back through the annals of innovation history however, it is perhaps not all that surprising.  For you see, the introduction of any new technology often requires a whole load of complementary things for its true value to be realized, and those complementary things can take some time to materialize.

A good example to illustrate this point is the shift from steam powered factories to electric powered ones.  Many factories simply replaced their steam powered devices with their electric powered counterparts, maintaining exactly the same layout and organizational processes that had served them well in the steam age.

This was despite all of that not really making much sense.  You see, in steam powered factories, it paid to cluster all of the machinery near to the power source, with the thirstiest machines closest of all.  Those same restrictions didn’t really apply when electric powered factories started to emerge, yet the initial reluctance to alter the way factories operated meant that very few productivity gains were witnessed as a result of the new technology.

It was only when factory layouts began to change towards designs that are more familiar to us today that we began to shift the dial on productivity, with process innovations like lean, six sigma and total quality management revolutionizing the productivity of our manufacturing operations.

Here’s the kicker though.  Those process changes probably took something like 30 years to materialize.  That’s a long time to fully gain the benefits from a particular technology, but I see similar things occurring in the social business world.

We have technologies emerging that can fundamentally change the way our organizations operate, but too many organizations are simply dumping these tools onto the same industrial style processes that existed previously.  The social technologies are generally good enough already, it is the organizational processes that will need to evolve for the productivity gains from social business to fully materialize.

In the manufacturing era, the shift from steam to electricity didn’t really happen until those managers steeped in steam powered traditions retired, hence the incredibly long lag between the new technology arriving and the productivity gains emerging.  Hopefully our senior managers today will have learned those lessons and won’t provide a similar barrier to progress.

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