Social in the large, in the small, and everything in between

From the very beginning of the social revolution online, people have used social tools in the context of getting work done. In fact, the product that inspired me to coin the term ‘social tool’ was intended for use in business. It was called Beehive, by Abuzz — an email-based tool that attempted to support structured discussions, something like Quora or Branch — and the company was acquired by The New York Times while I was still writing my review, in August 1999, I believe.

People saw the value of social media as an adjunct to business from the very start, as well, which was one of the reasons that The Cluetrain Manifesto had such a big impact: it was obvious that businesses were going to try to market in the brave new world of online social interaction, and many were going to be clueless.

Now, a decade and more later, social has become so ingrained that there really is no doubt that it will spread into every nook and cranny of our culture. Like written language, or electricity, the utility of socially grounded communications is so overwhelming that it will be embedded in nearly every facet of life. We now have social communications in medicine, law, finance, and manufacturing, not just in the more obvious industries like design and software development, whose practitioners must be in constant contact with computers to get their jobs done. Increasingly, every walk of life will be in the same existential bind: to get work done, everyone — even the delivery driver and the custodian cleaning floors in an office park late at night — needs to coordinate their work digitally. And that inexorably means that coordination will increasingly be built on social principles.

In recent days, that has been made more clear. Adobe, a company that once made its money selling packaged software products for design professionals, has made a big leap forward into the 21st century with its Creative Cloud, providing cloud-based access to its tools for the same constituency. Attempting to circumvent the Innovator’s Dilemma, the company is stealing its own business away with a next-generation product offering, rather than leaving it to a more nimble and faster-moving competitor.

And the inevitable: it has got to be social. And so Adobe’s acquisition of Behance — a leading community of creatives, based around showcasing portfolios of creatives, and the processes of commercial creative work — is a perfect indication of how social is seeping into every corner of the online city we call the web.

Adobe sits at one end of a dimension: a large, well-established company with vertical offerings for a specific industry, moving its product offerings from the old, pre-cloud era into the present. And, aside from the obvious cloudification of its products, what is the next and most critical adjacent domain? Social. And this two-step — cloudification and socialization — will ripple through all vertical industries software offerings.

In just the past few weeks we saw IBM announce the completion of its acquisition of Kenexa, a human resources software company. Guess what we can expect to see? The same one-two punch.

So, one of the major trends that we can see — both looking back and ahead — is this paired cloudification-and-socialization of established software niches. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the neatly drawn lines between these established verticals are with us forever, as impermeable silos in some old-school top-down business, though. Because social tools are based principally on social networks — on person-to-person relationships — they cut across functions in organizations, and indeed, across organizational boundaries altogether. So, social tools are capable of breaking down the barriers between vertical silos, of displacing or reshaping business processes, based on the decisions made by individuals trying to get their work done.

And of course, there is another end of the dimension, opposite the Adobes and IBMs of the world, are the new entrants: the startups, the consumer tools, the tiny point solutions. And man, is there an explosion of innovation going on today. In just the past few days I wrote about Kickoff, the most recent team task management tool on the scene, but not the last. But in the ‘at play’ side of things — like social photo sharing, social link sharing, social music — we are seeing dozens if not hundreds of new apps emerging every month.

Every cultural artifact can be a social object, and will be. There are tools for talking about movies, tools to talk while watching TV, or sporting events. People are sharing the feeds from fitness devices, or the readings from wired bathroom scales, and soon, the electricity that their household devices are consuming.

Not every one of these innovations are going to stick, and even fewer will find their way in the world of work, but many will. And some will have enormous impacts, destabilizing well-established categories or patterns of software use.

Consider just one theme: the steady migration away from office documents to social communication. As just one aspect of the shift to socially mediated coordination of work, we have quickly seen a steady decrease in status memos, monthly project reports, and death-by-powerpoint. Instead of a periodic broadcast of a document to a cc list or department, we are seeing the adoption of a different paradigm: the ongoing messaging of microstatus to a social network or project team. And so: fewer documents, less time spent editing documents, and less demand for products like Microsoft Word or Apple Keynote.

Instead, people rely on the tools that they use to communicate already, or microtools that implement a most-minimal subset of functionality. Consider Blossom.io, a new task management tool based around product development. Instead of creating a powerpoint, or a status update before a project meeting, I envision the product team all logging in and looking at the Kanban board implemented by Blossom, to see the status of various stages of the project. Instead of a tool for reporting, people will be using the baseline communication tools. And if you have to take the time to make a presentation — like teaching people how to use Tumblr, or training new employees how to submit travel expenses — people are more likely to use lightweight online solutions, like a ‘social poster’ on CheckThis, or a micropresentation on rvl.io. These tools are all cloud, basically, and socially-smart in ways that old school documents are not.

So, at one end we see cloudification and socialization of established software silos, and the slow and corrosive shift from closed vertical processes to more open and horizontal social networks. And at the other end, we see the surfacing of microtools, inherently social and cloudified. These trends are coevolutionary, as well, like the tuna and the shark. Better microtools influence the more established offering, either getting knocked off or acquired, given enough time and adoption, just like faster sharks lead to faster tuna, and so on. So paradoxically, the microtools might — in the long run — be the biggest impact on the large social software companies, like tuna making sharks swim faster.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Lead analyst Gigaom Research

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