Finding Your Place on the SharePoint Social Adoption Curve

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Everyone claims to have the inside track on the social movement, yet few people really understand how social will improve team collaboration in a meaningful and measurable way. Every new technology goes through an adoption curve — best outlined in the familiar innovation adoption lifecycle by Bohlen, Beal and Rogers at Iowa State University (above), which was used by Geoffrey Moore in his seminal book, Crossing the Chasm.

In the adoption curve, innovators create or embrace new technologies and ideas, which are then picked up by early adopters who synthesize the new ideas and , in most cases, find the first true business applications for these technologies, which is a critical step for any product or service to find its way into the early majority. These early adopters provide essential feedback and real-world applications, helping the technology mature.

One of the factors that helps any technology move from the limited financial opportunity (for the most part) of early adopters and into the realm of the mainstream adopters is the ability to link "features" to specific business outcomes. Within the realm of social computing technology, the transition to demonstrable connections between qualitative benefits and business output is beginning to be realized.

As I prepare to hit the road again this weekend, heading to Washington DC to attend my fifth Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (#WPC14), this topic reminds me of a session I provided at last year’s WPC that compared the social capabilities in SharePoint 2013 to those of Yammer (you can see it on SlideShare), and even wrote an article for Microsoft’s DigitalWPC website on the topic. Because of my focus on the role of social in broader collaboration strategies, I’m often asked "What is the business benefit of social in SharePoint."

At a high-level, my prepared answer is to tell people that social is another layer of the search experience — that it is about adding context to content, making that content more searchable, more findable. But I thought I’d provide a quick breakdown of what I mean. Specifically, my view is that there are five primary business benefits to using the social features in SharePoint:

  1. Data context and correlation — As people interact with the content you upload, they relate your content with other relevant content, such as projects you might not be  member of, studies that may correlate, or conversations on similar topics that you may not be aware of elsewhere in your organization. These conversations, tags, links, and sharing help to build context to your content that you alone might never be able to accomplish.
  2. Questions and answers — It never hurts to have multiple means through which users can find the answers they need to business questions. As social becomes more and more of a layer between enterprise applications, we will use these tools to find quick answers — people are able to leverage their networks of experts much more quickly than, say, through a search page. Social provides a quick and easy way to share data and knowledge.
  3. Identify expertise — Upload dozens of documents on a single topic, and you will likely be recognized as an expert (at least by volume) on a topic. But social helps surface subject matter experts (SMEs) directly, or more importantly, indirectly through their activities. As people like, rate, follow, and share content with SharePoint, they begin surfacing in search results as an expert because of their social expertise — expertise that you might not otherwise identify if not for the social tools used.
  4. Extending search — Social builds, extends, and improves search through the dynamic creation of end-user-generated keywords, or folksonomy. As users connect and discuss content, they apply tags or keywords that help them personally relate to that content, and track themes or data trends in SharePoint. Every like, every tag, every rating or share helps improve the overall search experience by adding to the folksonomy, which then — through proactive governance — can help improve your system taxonomy.
  5. Team connection — While the terms "social" and "collaboration" are often blurred, I like to separate their definitions by saying that social technology helps teams collaborate by building connections across traditional data silos. Social is the tool by which collaboration is achieved. Social helps teams connect and relate whether they are across the hall, across campus, or around the world — thus improving collaboration.

Many organizations are running as quickly as they can toward social  without understanding what they are actually trying to accomplish. As with any technology deployment, you rarely recognize the financial benefit when you cannot first identify the business goal. That’s certainly the case with social.

There are reasons to use SharePoint 2013 on premises social features, and reasons to use the Yammer model. While Microsoft is focusing their innovation efforts within the cloud, expanding social features within SharePoint Online, Yammer, and through integrations across the office 365 platform, what your business actually needs for the next 3 to 5 years may not put you in the Innovator or even the Early adopter segment….but that’s ok. Both SharePoint on prem and online (with Yammer integrations) provide powerful and flexible solutions, and both have distinct business value. The real key to gaining business benefit out of the Microsoft social platforms is to begin with a clear definition of your desired business outcomes. Know what you want to achieve up front, and the right technology will become more readily apparent.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.