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Friday, January 22, 2010

The Borg Were On To Something

For those of you who weren't fans of Star Trek - TNG (weren't we all?),  the Borg were a race of cybernetic organisms functioning as a single entity, roving about the universe "assimilating" planets into their Collective consciousness.
Besides indulging my geeky SciFi disposition, what does this have to do with EA and how we practice it...? While I'm not suggesting we become a civilization of mindless drones led by an evil queen, I do think we can learn about the power of the collective from our fictional friends.
In Blind Man's Bluff, the author recounts how the phenomenon of collective consciousness was used to find a lost submarine. A number of people were asked to put a pin in the ocean, after being given a very large area where the boat could have gone down. These people had no specific knowledge; they were asked to guess. The area where the most pins showed up was refined with another round of blind pin-pushing and so on... focusing their search in the smaller area of the ocean eventually identified, they found the submarine.
There is enormous power in the collective consciousness of our society - the emerging trend of Social Media Applications is rising to tap that power and put it in the hands of our leaders.
"Social media is media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media uses Internet and web-based technologies to transform broadcast media monologues (one to many) into social media dialogues (many to many). It supports the democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers." - Wikipedia, Social Media
While I could find no common definition, a Social Media Application is built upon or into traditional social media software for the specific purpose of furthering an enterprise's mission. Social Media Applications can be either externally or internally facing, however the future will blur this distinction.
In Social Media Today, author Josh Gordon discusses the Coming Changes in Social Media Business Applications; according to him, "companies are now viewing social media as a primary tool of customer engagement, enabling lead generation, immediate customer contact, and customer interaction." In addition to this obvious application of social media for customer relationship management, I assert that the internal use of social media applications is just as important for business', especially large ones.
Fortune 500 companies, with thousands of employees, potentially spread over dozens of locations have difficulty making internal connection need to excel. Traditional solutions to this problem include ERP and the Data Warehouses. Think about the premise of these tools - collect all application functions or data into a central logical or physical location then integrate it to provide centralized decision making power and data. There is just as much power in connecting the people of an organization through Social Media Applications and it much cheaper. Social Media Applications have this wonderful property - they are self organizing!
An example of this is the current Crisis Camp  and Crisis Common efforts supporting the Haiti disaster. These groups are busy configuring Social Media Applications to harness our collective power to find people and reunite loved ones. These efforts have organized themselves overnight with no central direction. In a matter of days, the power of the social collective is rushing help to Haiti in ways that no amount of money could do so quickly.
I work in commercial insurance, which is essentially a "people" business. Our company's people sell contracts that indemnify clients from risk through agents who work hard to maintain relationship's with their customers. There is very little product differentiation in the market, so selling policies is a matter of building and maintaining relationships and serving customers in claims. Supporting this external customer relationship building exercise requires that the people inside my company know each other really well. The worse we are at finding answers and identifying opportunities for serving customers and cross selling products, the less competitive we will be.
While I am not a proponent of "Groupthink", there is enormous potential in providing access to a company's social web to leaders who could tap it for knowledge on market segments, customer needs, production bottlenecks and engineering issues. To often, the people who know the market best are working level, customer facing employees or engineers many levels removed from the board room.
As an example, consider GE. In his book, Judgement: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, Noel Tichy recounts a the story of the $1 Billion GE Appliance fiasco. They fielded a new, smaller refrigerator with a new compressor technology. The product was a huge success, however the engineers who knew about design defects were not in the go-to-market decision making process. The end-result was a major product recall that cost the company dearly.
In the new age of social media applications, the distance between the leaders and the engineers would be nothing more than a few mouse clicks; had the technology existed and had GE implemented it, leaders could have easily accessed the engineering opinion through internal social media. Even if they had not thought to ask, it is entirely possible that an engineer with unregistered concerns about product design could have posted information to his personal home page or used other social media channels to raise awareness of the problem. While Social Media Applications would not have guaranteed avoidance, they could have offered conscientious management an avenue to tap the corporate collective to make a more informed decision.
As EAs, we are still primarily focused on ERP, BI, DW, ECM, name your 2-3 letter acroynm for big, expensive applications and information integration platforms.  Today's social media software provides a cheap, "People Integration" platform for very powerful connections externally with customers AND internally between parts of a business.
I predict that the tomorrow's most successful businesses will be the ones that harness this power to change the dynamic of marketing, supercharge the connectedness of their employes and put the power of the collective into the hands of leaders. Tomorrow's successful business will be less a separate entity operating for the benefit of its shareholders measured strictly by P&L. It will breakdown the barriers between company and customer, forming a dynamic social organism that understands stakeholder's needs and responds organically.
I end by challenging our profession to think about this, evaluate our strategies, roadmaps and enterprise architectures and introduce the power of the Borg into our organizations.

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Brian has 21 years of engineering and technology leadership including 12 years as an IT professional. As an Enterprise Architect, Brian has been a leader in establishing Enterprise Architecture Practices in both the Financial Services and Defense industries. He has led the development and implementation of information management strategies, established architecture governance processes, and led multimillion dollar, multiyear program teams. In addition, Brian has extensive experience with web interoperability and data exchange standards established by the W3C and OASIS.