Someone recently asked me why collaboration is important in the enterprise. To be specific, they were asking about the kind of collaboration that products like Yammer and Chatter enable. This collaboration consists of enabling people to share thoughts, ideas and micro news bits in a social context without the usual institutional overhead of email or a meeting. Collaboration more resembles Twitter than email and I suspect, but have not collected the data to prove it, that a typical collaboration emission is shorter than a tweet.
But the question got me thinking about other times and situations when the same kinds of questions were asked about the latest technology. No matter how the question is posed, the heart of it is frequently something like this: Are we wasting time and money doing this or is it the real deal?
It’s a fair question. We all live with limitations — so much time in a day, so much money in the budget and so many more demands on both that we can fulfill so what does a sane person do? Well, history might be a guide though it is not infallible.
Throughout my career the big theme has been converting the economy from one that manages and produces things to one that manages and produces ideas and information. We all know this and if we take a moment to consider it, this means our recent history is also about finding better, faster and less costly ways to share information.
I compiled the attached table from data served up by the World Bank.
|Year||US GDP (Trillions)|
It shows the U.S. Gross Domestic Product by selected years, which I picked for specific reasons. In 1975, we were in the early days of the mini-computer revolution and GDP was a healthy $1.623 trillion, a lot of money to be sure but puny in comparison to things to come. Ten years later GDP had jumped about two and a half times to $4.185.
That’s because by 1985 we were enjoying the benefits of not only minis but desktops. During those days I can distinctly recall people asking if it was really necessary to have a computer or terminal on every desk top. That was about the era when company phone systems became popular and just about every company had bought a fax machine. The phone system replaced those awful black receivers with multiple lines and made it possible to forward calls, have three way calling and whoa! voice mail. No more coming back from lunch to pick up those cute little pink messages. Phone, fax and computer formed a powerful trio for information sharing.
By 1995 GDP had grown again nearly doubling to $7.359 trillion. I remember economists like Alan Greenspan trying to explain what was going on in the economy. Testifying before congress they looked like C students who were trying to explain why they were suddenly getting A’s in Physics. That’s because by 1995 the economy was growing like a proverbial weed but in a different way than anyone had witnessed before. The economy was growing with little inflation, the amount of work produced by the average worker was climbing without any noticeable additional input of capital. That’s called productivity and we were better at it than anyone else who had ever lived on the planet. The productivity was driven by our new technologies.
The bigger the economic number the harder it is to double but by 2005 with the evolution of the Internet well under way the U.S. still managed a very healthy $12.58 GDP. And even with a recession and an unnecessary financial economy meltdown driven by stupidity, by 2009 U.S. GDP was a lofty $14.119.
So when people ask me about the goals and measures they should apply to tools that get information to employees so that they can work better and smarter I am tempted to say something flip. The truth is that the improvements we all crave in business are accretive — they build up over time. You might not even notice an improvement in the first year but you will.
A better question might be, is social media within the enterprise the real deal? And I think that answer is yes. It’s yes because it follows in a long line of tools that have enabled us to work with information in surprising and creative ways and those ways have spurred significant economic growth over more than thirty years.
There are names for this like paradigm shift and names for the people and companies that make the change. Some are called early adopters others are laggards where you come down in all of this determines how much benefit you receive from the transition. Be early to the party and you reap rewards that are disproportionate your meager investment. Arrive late and you are at best playing catch-up.