A note on Gartner’s Social Computing special report

Gartner a couple of months ago (September) published a “special report” on Social Computing, analysing its impact under 20 different headings of both business functions (corporate governance, CRM, the CIO …) and market verticals (Higher Education, financial services, media …). You won’t be able to see the full report unless you’re a Gartner client (and I’m not, of course). But there are some pointers out there to give you an idea of its coverage.

Not in the Gartner blogs sadly, unless someone from Gartner is listening and can give me a pointer (and remember, I do have a topic index to Gartner’s blogs – see the InformationSpan website). It does appear, but only as a marketing sentence. Disappointing, really. And, par for the course, a lot of the links that Google uncovers are other sources who just reproduce the words in the Gartner press release.

There is, though, a two page Gartner document which summarises the coverage; and you can see the headings on the Gartner website also. The summary begins with a definition: Social computing is about enabling, encouraging and capturing the often unstructured interactions between individuals. The power of human communication and collaboration is something I learned about when teaching an Open University course in the early 1990s, which introduced computer-mediated communication (as we called it then) to the world of distance learning. And, as Gartner note, the academic roots of this analysis go back to at least the 1940s.

Gartner’s take on Social Computing, going back to when I was an enterprise client user, was initially very sceptical but, once convinced, their insight is worth considering. I don’t think Gartner will ever become a social media evangelist in the enterprise, but if you are an enterprise leader or IT architect you need the realist as well as the enthusiast. There are indeed challenges to business leadership, as Gartner point out: information risk is undoubtedly one, and the challenge to hierarchic leadership is another. There is also the perennial question: does an enterprise attempt to reproduce the social environment within its boundaries, or accept and use the tools that are already out there? Try searching for your own company’s name on del.icio.us if you doubt that your people are already using them!

As I’ve commented before, none of these questions are new. We faced them in the 90s through email and newsgroups. I’m not sure myself how many command-and-control enterprises are still out there; certainly the one I worked for networked to get things done. And on the evidence available, I think Gartner misses the point in talking about “social computing projects”.

It’s more fundamental than that. “Social computing” is an enabling technology, no more. It provides easier, faster, more accessible, wider ways of doing that characteristic human activity: communicating. Holistically, across the whole of one’s activity, not in project silos. The creative interactions have always been the ones that cross boundaries.

So: does an organisation continue to embrace the developing open-ness of interpersonal communication and team interactions? And not just within the enterprise, but across the increasingly fluid boundaries between the enterprise and its partners? Do you understand partnership, or still expect (maybe without fully realising it) to dominate the interactions? The answers to those questions drive technology choices: proprietary and enclosed, or open and externally linked.

Nikos Drakos, one of the Gartner report’s authors, has blogged about the separation or overlap of people’s personal networks: work-life, or one life? That’s another important aspect to the debate. As computer-mediated interpersonal networking becomes mainstream (which it has, whether the enterprise likes it or not!) it’s almost too late to be asking the questions.

• The Business Impact of Social Computing 2008 summary, Gartner, 16 Sep 2008
• You can see the index of sections here, and each link provides a one-sentence summary of Gartner’s take in that area
• Personal and work networks: Separate them, mash them, or mesh them? Nikos Drakos, Gartner blog, 26 Sep
• For our Analyst Blogs Index, go to informationspan.com and click the link in the top right hand corner

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