Social networks herald new era for collaborative decision-making

A thought leadership piece by Simon Carpenter, Director of Strategic Initiatives, SAP Africa.

Johannesburg“Collaboration is the Holy Grail of decision-making”. This is according to Gartner. Not many people would argue with this statement.

On one hand, collaboration ensures that decisions are aligned, and that those involved in the decision-making process are committed and willing to execute. On the other hand, the more people, departments and divisions that collaborate on a particular decision, the better the actual decisions are likely to be. Collaboration, in essence, is Ubuntu coming to life in a business environment, says Simon Carpenter, Director of Strategic Initiatives, SAP Africa.

When we think about collaboration in today’s context, the most natural forums for close, rapid and consultative interactions are social networking sites. So why aren’t we seeing more businesses – particularly South African and African businesses – jumping on this bandwagon and introducing social networks as their business communications hubs?

The learnings from social media undeniably apply to businesses:

1) Social networks connect people in a flexible, unstructured, ‘ad hoc’ way. So while businesses used to have to rely on collaboration through e-mail and other very structured applications, the advent of social networks has made this unnecessary. In fact, according to Gartner, social networking services will replace e-mail as the primary vehicle for interpersonal communications for 20% of all business users by 2014.

2) Social networks also enable users to follow the trail of a discussion, from beginning to the very end – an important attribute for decision-making within organisations, which often follows a winding and convoluted path. Utilising social networks as the basis for collaboration within a business context will ensure a record of any debate that led up to a particular decision is kept, and that the tools and assets that were used in the process are captured for all participants to see and continually refer to. In this way, corporate memory is conserved and leveraged.

3) Social media platforms also lend themselves very well to dealing with unstructured information and processes, allowing users to deal with unstructured data in real time – something of undeniable importance to small and large organisations alike.

4) Finally, but importantly, some of the best social media applications have been developed through a process of co-innovation. Consider Facebook apps as an example. For organisations, social networks can aid the process of innovation – particularly co-innovation – by allowing dialogue between, and engagement with, all stakeholders. This is important because, typically, the more strategic the decision is, the more unstructured and abstract the information is used to support it.

So why are so many companies reluctant to apply and use social media for work-related purposes? There is definitely a concern around the various tools’ impact on productivity, along with security and reputational risks. On the African continent, the cost and availability of bandwidth is also an issue, although this is rapidly receding in the face of the current bandwidth explosion.

With those risks in mind, many companies are putting the concept of integrating social media into their ‘tool kits’ to the side, choosing instead to focus on traditional methods of collaboration. However, according to Gartner’s research vice-president, Monica Basso, “a truly collaborative, effective and efficient workplace will not arise until organisations make [social networking] capabilities widely available and users become more comfortable with them”. She goes on to say that technology is only an enabler, and that culture is the key to success.

There are several tools out there that allow companies to take advantage of all the benefits of social networks, without any of the downside risk: ready-made decision-making tools that deal with unstructured data and can be run in the cloud, or behind a company’s own firewall, that build either an internal or external community of social networkers around businesses, divisions or particular decisions. An example of this is SAP’s Streamworks collaboration platform. This combines the best principle of social networking together with pragmatic business requirements for real utility, decision support tools and security.

South Africans have a natural affinity to the concept of Ubuntu, and now our businesses have the tools to bring this somewhat intangible concept to bear on high-level decision-making. Whether we choose to use the tools is up to us. But only by exploring these new models will true collaboration become a reality

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