I was reading through some article clippings this morning, which I think I pulled out of an old copy of either Business 2.0 or Fast Company in the late 1990’s, talking about productivity. My habit is to go through the several magazines that appear in my mail each month, pulling anything relating to collaboration or social informatics, and add the clippings to a giant binder of potential writing material. It’s something I’ve been doing for almost 20 years, and has been a source for much of my writing.
But what got me thinking today was how much of my career has been focused around automating and improving productivity, in general. My former software startup, QOSES, sought to identify relationships and patterns within information assets (similar to the concept of the social graph) with the goal of helping individuals and teams to increase productivity. Productivity is the underlying theme within some of the leading books on social networks. Pick up Connected by Christakis and Fowler, Six Degrees by Watts, Understanding Social Networks by Kadushin, or either Linked (my favorite) or Bursts by Barabasi and you’ll find that improving productivity permeates each of them.
In the 6 years since I left Microsoft and ventured back into the SharePoint community, I have presented dozens (or more) sessions on the topic of social, and within those sessions presented the idea that one of the chief goals of a social collaboration platform is to improve productivity. And for those who have been able to sit through one of those sessions, you know how passionate I am about the idea that social drives collaboration productivity — both through delivering a more engaging user experience, but also, more practically speaking, by improving the search and discovery process.
How, you ask? Social adds, enhances, refines, expands metadata.
As I’m sure you would agree, metadata drives search, helps define and categorize content and tasks, and enables many of the features within SharePoint 2013 (and newer). Think about the most common SharePoint scenario: adding a document to a document library. As you upload a file, you might have the ability to apply relevant keywords from a pre-defined term store. Your taxonomy adds structure to the content. In addition to the required taxonomy fields, you may also apply a few relevant keywords that are not part of the taxonomy, but which you know will provide richer context to the content. Folksonomy, in conjunction with a proactive governance model, refines your taxonomy so that common folksonomy terms eventually find their way into the managed taxonomy, so that others can use those terms more broadly. To make this model work requires some effort from your team — a governance process to regularly review end user keywords, delete irrelevant terms, promote others, and overall optimize your platform for a healthy search experience.
Social utilizes your metadata to enhance conversation, and make your dialog applicable to your work output. Social interaction further enriches the context and visibility of your content, especially when in context to the office graph and some of the new machine learning capabilities built into the Office 365 experience. Delve is able to learn from the content, people, and conversations you interact with — and through your continued social interactions, refines its results based on what it learns.
We don’t always know what content we’re looking for. The limitation of the traditional search model is that we only find that content which fit into our specific search terms. If someone uploads content without applying taxonomy or folksonomy (which, let’s admit it, is the case for the majority of our content) then you rely on your search crawler to search through titles and metadata descriptions. But through our social connections, we may locate new content based on personal and professional relationships, and through tags (an ever-growing folksonomy) applied by people you’ve never met and maybe never will…..because they were able to find that content through their social circles and apply some context of their own.
Productivity improves when people can find their content, and (more importantly) when the processes you ask them to follow — to ensure that metadata is assigned, and that your compliance/security guidelines are being met — also fits into the way they need to work. That’s really the key: design solutions that match the needs and working habits of your people, rather than force people to learn a new way to work. Social tools tend to be a more natural fit for the way that people connect and collaborate.
There is still so much going on within the social collaboration space, within the SharePoint platform and outside of it. While many of us have become fatigued to the use of the word "social" and, understandably, Microsoft’s redirecting of every social conversation back to Yammer, social collaboration is much bigger than Yammer, and has become more or less ubiquitous to the platforms we use. Social collaboration is at the core of where SharePoint is going, what end users want out of their tools and platforms, and is the key to making information management accessible.