5: Selecting the Best Social Tech Tools

Choosing the right "tools" for social tech is daunting, as there are many possibilities and constant competition among firms to "own" the social space. While some sites have taken precedence over others for certain purposes, there are still many newcomers and niche players, and new tools are constantly being introduced.

Lack of Stability

Social media is a highly dynamic and evolving space, in which many service providers are participating and competing for attention and users have a lot of options, but little control.

Many social media tools are quite simple concepts, and the applications are easy to build. Consider how simplistic Twitter is, such that the original concept could have been knocked out in an afternoon by someone with basic programming skills. It didn't' become complicated until millions of people started to use it, and new ideas for how it could be accessed and leveraged cropped up.

As result, a simple application can be a huge and lucrative success in social media. This has attracted many firms and individuals who would like to get into the game as developers, many little applications being developed by small firms who do not have the resources (marketing, support, development) of a traditional software company. It's no exaggeration to suggest that there's a new tool coming onto the market daily, though most fail to find a user base, its' difficult to predict which will gain a lasting foothold.

Aside of developing original applications, sharing data and resources among sites is commonplace - such that third-parties can write software that works in the context of another system (e.g., a Facebook application) or include data from a social site in a "mash up" that adds additional functionality. As a result, the social universe consists of many combined and intertwined sets of capabilities by different providers.

Another factor driving the adoption of social media is that it is free to participants, which encourages adoption and experimentation. It's reasonable to conclude that, had many of the social media sites proposed to charge the customer for the service, they would not have caught on. In many instances, a social media service is started as an experiment, and the creator doesn't consider monetization until it has caught on and there is a sufficient audience to "sell" to advertisers.

There is a sidebar on the danger of "free" in that the provider of a free service has no legal obligation to the users of that service. They can shut down the service overnight, exclude users at a whim, change the functionality, or do as they please with their service - and there is no legal recourse for those who claim to have been damaged by any change in direction. A paying customer has legal rights to be compensated if he does not get the service he paid for, whereas a freeloader does not.

For software firms, competing with "free" is impossible. Many of the tools that are commercially available are significantly inferior in features and capabilities to those that are available at no cost to users. (EN: I think the author misses a significant point - that in social technology, the user base is more significant than the capabilities of the application. The most feature-laden virtual community software that makes Facebook seems primitive is not valuable if only a few hundred people use it and no-one is adopting it. There are a lot of very well-designed sites and tools that failed to gain an audience, and are empty playgrounds.)

The Role of the Manager and Social Tools

The author assumes that someone must coordinate and standardize the social tools used in an organization, as chaos could result if each employee were allowed to choose his preferred services. (EN: Disagree. It doesn't matter whether an employee uses blogger or word press to publish, so long as those who need the information can find his blog. It's not like traditional software, where files can only be opened with a specific brand of application. Also, since the tools are free, there's no reason a person can't have both a Facebook and Google+ account and use whichever is most effective for communicating with a specific group. The only difficulty is that of the administrator who wants to monitor, control, and micromanage - which itself is contrary to the nature of social media.)

The author lists a number of different kinds of social tools that are currently available - keeping in mind that it is evolving, so new tools are being discovered constantly, and that there is a lot of overlap in what specific sites or services do:

Do not seek to adopt all of these at once - it is too much for you to tackle at once, and too much for your employees to take on at once. Likely, you can determine which kind of tool would be of the most benefit, roll it out, then consider additional ones.

When it comes to the employees who are not currently using social media, you will need to encourage them to use it, and can do so by identifying applications that they should use. The author suggests that management gets to choose the social applications employees are permitted to use, and provides some guidance for doing so:

Dealing with Employees Who Prefer to Use Their Personal Applications

If people are already using social media, chances are they already have applications they prefer to use.

On the bright side, these people are already using the tools, require less training, and already have lots of connections - and they have done so on their own time, at no cost to the company. This should be seen as getting "extra" value from a given employee.

On the other hand, it can be difficult to "convert" such people to the company's preferred tools, and they will be more resistant to changing to a different platform (due to the time and effort they spent learning it and building their network) than a person who has not experience at all.

(EN: The author waffles on this, and comes to no conclusion as to how to deal with the situation. There really isn't a correct answer, but my observation and experience is that where companies attempt to force a specific technology on workers, so that the firm can monitor and control interaction, it doesn't' go over well.)

Training Your Team Members

Training in general is one of the most beneficial investments a firm can make to increase the proficiency of its people, and it is a critical investment to make when any new technology is introduced to the workforce - yet it is virtually nonexistent in many organizations.

Employees are given access to social tools and expected to figure out how to use them without any training, and their employers seem dumbfounded as to the reason why they do not use them productively. (EN: This is nothing new - most software, and likely most hardware, is issued to employees without training and even the documentation is withheld. As a result, most employees limp along, only marginally competent in the tools they use every day.)

The assumption is that today's tools are so intuitive and their functionality sop self-evident that employees don't need training. In practice, this assumption is clearly wrong. Older employees will often refuse to use software until they get training on it. Younger ones have greater confidence in their ability to "figure it out," but learn only what is absolutely necessary to accomplish their immediate task - there's no time to explore or discover potential uses. And for both, if there is an existing and more familiar way to do something, they will fall back to it - or if there isn't, they may work around it.

The author suggests focusing on quick wins: things that employees can learn quickly, put to use, and see results as soon as possible. Then, when they see the benefit, provide a second round of "deep training" to familiarize them with the various functions and features. If you start with deep training, it's overwhelming, and the learner does not recognize the value of it. At the same time, deep training is necessary - if you teach just the basics, users will be capable of doing no better.

There's a bit of a side-track about generational prejudices - generally, it is presumed people who are older and more experienced are the most "fit" to provide training to others. But especially when it comes to technology, there is the sense that young people are better with it, and older employees will be more willing to accept advice from someone they might otherwise be dismissive of. Better still, consider doing the training yourself: it's a method of "leading by example" that earns more respect for both the tool and the leader.

Researching New Social Tools

The tools for social media are evolving quickly - new ones appear and existing ones change - so an ongoing effort is needed to keep up to date. Where a new tool emerges, decide whether it is better suited to the firm's needs; and where a tool changes, re-evaluate whether it still delivers the value for which it was originally chosen. Because most tools and upgrades are free, there is no financial reason to cling to an outdated tool.

However, this can also lead to the problem of constantly changing tools simply because something new and different comes along. Because there are many players in the social media space, all of whom are constantly trying to out-do one another, "something better" is constantly coming out - though many offerings are very short-lived.

The choice to change tools needs to be based on the same considerations that go into selecting any software for business use. Are the new features so beneficial they offset the cost of learning a new tool? Do people have the time to learn a new application? Is it compatible with other social tools you already use? Is it possible for some users to change/upgrade while others do not?