Social media is everywhere today. But what does social really mean? If you're just sharing the latest news about who you are dating or a great recipe you just tried for Thanksgiving, then social networking is just about sharing with friends and family. In an organizational context, though, social becomes much more, enhancing and changing the very definition of "work."
"Right now, BPM [business process management] seems like its own industry and enterprise social seems like its own, but they are both going to be [made] obsolete by this merger it's so powerful," says Matt Calkins, founder, president, and CEO of BPM provider Appian, a company that has reinvented its offering around bringing these two worlds together.
Getting Social BPM Right May Mean Redefining 'Work'
If you define work as a group of people striving towards a common goal, whether it's building a car, designing a toaster or running a hotel, then what you are really talking about is a group of people collaborating to get something done. For this group, being social isn't about sharing who they are; it's about sharing what they do and how they do it. In other words, being social means coming together to achieve a common end.
In a business, these activities are defined and, more importantly for the sake of this discussion, bounded by processes. This is where the idea of social business process management comes in. BPM is all about modeling and automating workflows to make them more efficient and effective. When you integrate social—or, in this case, collaboration—capabilities into these platforms, you can dramatically affect how well people perform their jobs.
"Software features do not do that. They are not the catalyst for doing that," says Michael Krigsman, president of Asuret, a technology change and IT project consultancy. "What's necessary is to change the behavior of people, to change how people interact with one another, how they share information and how they communicate, whether it's on projects or across departments or what have you."
Wolfram Jost, CTO of German BPM provider Software AG, agrees. Technology in and of itself solves few problems, but technology coupled with stakeholder buy-in and adoption does.
"Order to cash, for example, is order to cash, but the point is how innovative, how efficient, how effective is this process?" Jost asks. "To have a desktop application and then to mobile-enable it is technology. But if I have now mobile capability how [does this] improve the processes? If I do it the same way, what is the benefit of having a mobile device?"
Familiar App Help Employees Work Better
This question of benefits can best be answered by looking at the case of a property and casualty insurer. When a natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy hits, the firm must, on very short notice, send out a small army of claims adjusters, clean-up crews and construction contractors who have no previous interactions with the firm, its business processes or its mission-critical legacy back-office systems. Called into the field within hours and carrying their own devices, these contract employees have little time to learn a complicated home-grown application interface or business process on the fly.
This example brings together a number of trends and problems—outsourcing, BYOD, mobile devices, mobile employees and social, not to mention physical disaster recovery. Fortunately, all can be ameliorated by social.
What if, for example, these contractors could download the firm's new integrated front end modeled on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn from an app store? They could be up and running in minutes, thanks to a front-end based on an intuitive, familiar and interactive social interface.
This social layer, loosely defined by Jost as a time-sorted list of events, could integrate into the firm's legacy apps via robust, mature and secure APIs. Now, when an adjuster or contractor needs help with a decision that falls outside standard procedures, he can reach the people he needs to reach in real-time using an interface he uses all the time in his personal life.
A process that used to take a week of back-and-forth phone and email communications, complete with a paper trail, can now be handled in hours, if not minutes, thanks to instant messaging, photo-sharing and even streaming video. This saves the insurer and the contractor both time and money. More importantly, it makes the insurer's customers much happier, since they don't have to spend another week in a hotel while the insurance company haggles with the contractor.
A few years ago, this scenario would have been impossible. Social technologies now allow you to follow the threads of a job wherever it goes.
Another example comes from Echo Entertainment. CTO Rob James supplies technology to a Sydney-based casino and hotel complex with 10,000 employees. There's only about 1,000 administrative staff; the rest are on the service side of the house. This means they share a common profile: young, mobile, connected, social media savvy and, all too often for James' taste, temporary.
One thing that happens often with this type of staff is the workers want to change shifts. This isn't a problem for Echo management. They're used to it. The problem was with the process.
Until an enterprising group of table dealers got together and set up a Facebook page to post information about who wanted to get and give up what shifts, this was done on a message board in the back of the house. At first, James and his fellow C-suiters were a bit wary of the Facebook "solution" and thought to shut it down. Then they realized that their employees were solving a problem very creatively and in a way that worked best for them.
"The first place you go to is not Facebook," James says. "Then we sort of reversed that conversation saying, 'Well, what's the problem we're really trying to solve here? Because the problem, as far as the end user is concerned, the problem is solved. So what's our problem?'"
With this flash of inspiration, James set out to find a business-grade solution to do the same thing. He came up short. But he also realized he was wasting this time trying to re-solve a problem that had already been solved. Wouldn't it be better to just embrace what was going on and figure out a way to use Facebook's now-mature APIs to tie the shift-swapping page into Echo's back end and put some authentication and security around it?
There are two clear benefits, James says: One is the efficiencies, which can immediately hit the bottom line. But it's the other benefit, staff satisfaction, that really matters since "the hospitality industry is statistically and notoriously known for having a very high turnover rate."
James adds, "It's all about the people that are on Facebook all the time. They do collaborate through social networks, and their mobile device is their primary communication device. So all these things are our sweet spot to deliver employee satisfaction because its the tools and channels they want to use."
Social BPM Necessary to Attract, Retain Next-Generation Employees
This is where the rubber meets the road in social BPM. The next generation of workers is going to expect this level of interactivity at work. Take a recent college graduate, tell her to work in a cubicle all day on a computer without Internet access and only a few breaks, and then tell her she can't make personal calls or text a friend or check Facebook—basically, cut her off from her world—and what do you think the outcome of that conversation would be? Would that employee enthusiastically agree to work for you or look elsewhere—and If she did say yes, how long would she stay?
In this context, the idea of social-enabling business processes makes a lot of sense, not only from a personnel point of view but from a productivity point of view. Processes that until recently took hours, days or weeks can be socialized; suddenly, employees have access to the information and people they need to make better, faster decisions faster wherever they are.
"This creates a great opportunity for the CIO," Krigsman says. "Technology is necessary as the facilitator or enabler. There's an opportunity, then, for the CIO to do something that adds more value and helps transform the business, helps change the business."
Allen Bernard is Columbus, Ohio-based writer who covers IT management and the integration of technology into the enterprise. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter @allen_bernard1. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.