Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of social computing solutions. Business benefits of social computing provide increased productivity, better innovation and lower costs. We hear about use cases and evolve to quickly meet customer needs. But years ago, when I worked for the CIO of a $2 billion corporation, I remember a different perspective on these projects. Today, while helping a customer at an architectural design session at the Microsoft Technology Center, I was reminded of what it’s like to be in the IT professional’s role.

How well knowledge workers do their jobs includes how quickly they generate new ideas and turn them into solutions, how quickly they find the right person with the right expertise, how well they work together across time zones and geographies, etc. These activities generally determine how well their companies compete, and companies implement technologies to try to give themselves an advantage.

From an IT perspective, this often means that life is messy. Generally, there are many systems that contain profile data. Often, multiple authentication systems are in place (especially if the company is active with mergers and acquisitions). Quite frequently, the underlying technology platform has been deployed in different ways across multiple groups or divisions.

Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why some IT professionals might classify social computing as low priority. It is possible that your company is in such dire technology straits that you should not try implementing social computing – or at least take things slowly.

But before you go running back to that business sponsor who’s been bugging you to get social computing implemented amidst all of the other things you’re working on, it’s worth taking a step back and considering a few questions:

  • What is the role of IT investment in your company?
  • What happens if you don’t pursue a social computing project that runs on standard platforms?
  • Can you kill two (or three) birds with one business-sponsored stone?
    How can social computing help your IT department?

First, your company’s IT strategy may make doing social computing or nearly any IT project a bad idea. Some companies have an explicit strategy of keeping direct IT costs as low as possible. If your company has this strategy, you should chat with that business sponsor about a more strategic role for IT. But I think it’s quite rare for companies with lots of knowledge workers to pursue this type of strategy. Today, most companies realize that a certain level of technology investment is required not only to increase productivity of knowledge workers but also to recruit and retain talented employees.
So what happens if you push back or drag your feet on a project request? In addition to increasing tension with business stakeholders (who eventually have a say in IT budgets), I see more and more users, departments and even entire business units doing projects on their own. Whether it’s throwing a server under a desk somewhere, subscribing to some software as a service-based offering, or hordes of end users setting up a company group on Facebook or LinkedIn, this is pretty much a worst-case scenario for IT professionals. Not only is there real risk that company data is exposed to places you don’t know and can’t control, but it can also become an IT support and maintenance burden. And if the users really like these solutions, tension with business stakeholders will increase when you shut the thing down - especially if you don’t have a viable alternative.

What’s in it for you to do one of these projects? You might get some personal recognition and valuable career experience implementing one of these solutions. But it also could be a lot of work. So if you’re looking at the challenges you already have on your plate, maybe a social computing project is good justification to address some key infrastructure needs. For example, if you’ve been trying to get to a good user profile story with data pulled from line of business and HR systems and a good search capability, implementing social user profiles may help you with these key goals while moving social computing forward.

And finally, your own IT department may actually benefit from the social computing platform. For instance, the social computing platform can enhance knowledge repositories, making it easier for end users to find answers to their IT questions - thereby decreasing your support burden. The same knowledge repositories can be used to train new IT employees and shorten their time to productivity. Similarly, the self-service features provided in most social computing platforms (such as ad hoc community creation) can eliminate tedious tasks that previously required IT assistance. In addition, RSS and alerting capabilities can be used by IT to keep end users informed of important IT matters such as system downtimes or software upgrade schedules.

I understand that most IT organizations are facing challenges and resource constraints. But if you step back and consider how social computing is providing leading enterprises with real business benefits, you may come to the conclusion that you can’t afford to not address social computing. And you might help your company, your business sponsors and yourself all at the same time.

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