If technology markets could be accused of having an ironic sense of humor, the fate of the social collaboration software market would be the poster child of software irony. Touted over the last decade as the next wave of disruptive business technology, social collaboration software has lately drifted into the background of enterprise innovation, the victim of an excess of hype meeting a dearth of customer uptake.
What’s ironic about the new status of social collaboration software is that there has never been a greater need for collaboration and cooperation in the enterprise across virtually every company, business network, non-profit, and government entity. In an increasingly complex and interdependent world, where the velocity of business is a key determinant of success, getting individuals to work as a team is becoming a new best practice, albeit one more honored in the breach than in the observance.
The examples of the need for collaboration, and the ironic lack thereof, are everywhere, made perhaps even more ironic by the stake SAP has put in the ground with its Run Simple message. How many of us have seen what should be a collaborative sales process become confrontational, an implementation turn into a battle between client and implementer, a change request turn into a turf battle between IT and the line of business, a joint product development between partners turn into a lifeless product launch?
It is no surprise that the world at large — where the stakes are measured in human lives and dignity — is so dysfunctional. It’s hard enough, even when the stakes are infinitely smaller, to get 10 people sitting around a room to agree to work together to implement a piece of new software or business service.
This dysfunction was on the minds of many of the early proponents of social collaboration, who had hoped that a software tool that offered unprecedented degrees of transparency, connectivity, and interaction could step into this breach and make the world of business a better place. But these early proponents failed to account for an important lacuna in the business world, particularly the American business world: a culture of cooperation. The American pioneer tradition of the rugged individualist1 and its cultural cousin, the great-man theory,2 meant that cooperation didn’t rate as highly as individual initiative and follow-the-leader hierarchical management.
The Possibilities of Simplification
I firmly believe that overcoming this cultural barrier to cooperation is an essential part of what SAP needs to do for itself, its customers, and its Run Simple message. It’s easier said than done — culture not only eats innovation for breakfast, it readily, and messily, devours simplistic attempts at cultural change, hence the aforementioned failure of social collaboration
But there’s a leadership moment waiting for SAP in the cooperation market of ideas, and I think Run Simple is the platform that can make this possible. In fact, cooperation of a sort is already implied in the Run Simple concept: the notion that business processes and their underlying technologies and applications can be “simplified” and the overall user experience rendered in a manner that enhances user acceptance and overall usability requires an unprecedented degree of technological and business cooperation.
This isn’t the cooperation of loosely knit global teams coming together across pre-existing boundaries to work together in previously uncharted business waters — the largely unrealized raison d’etre of social collaboration — but it’s more similar than different. Creating simplified processes, infrastructures, applications, and user experiences requires unparalleled levels of cooperation between the individuals who have the responsibility for those technological and business assets. Want to streamline a complex business process? A guaranteed way to fail is to impose a new process on your users. Want to simplify your technology infrastructure? Try implementing a unilateral change and see how well that goes over with your colleagues.
Building a Collaborative Culture
The better way — actually the only way — to really simplify the enterprise is to start with building a consensus on what has to be changed, and then using that consensus to underpin your simplification efforts. And the only way to do that is to build a cooperative culture that can overcome the inevitable turf battles, CYA reflexes, and NIMBY-isms that unfortunately rear their ugly heads when change is in the wind.
With cooperation and collaboration as fundamental components of Run Simple, SAP would have a more nuanced, and frankly more realistic, message to take to its customers, many of whom left SAPPHIRE assuming that SAP thinks simplification is itself simple. On the contrary: running simple will never be simple; nothing simple ever is.
Perhaps the best way to understand the Run Simple journey is to look at modern typographical design. The very best designs — those which embody the pinnacle of the typographer’s art — are the ones where the complexity and technique of typography are completely hidden from the reader, who is unaware of why he or she is having such a superior reading experience. That experience is superior precisely because the design team labored long and hard to make its work so good that it’s invisible.
Run Simple has a similar prerogative: for companies to truly simplify, they have to labor long and hard at reimagining the complexity in their enterprises. That can only come from a collaborative culture that takes disparate, disconnected components of technology, business processes, and user experiences and looks at how they can be improved for the benefit of all.
The lack of a culture of collaboration guaranteed that social collaboration software, which always lacked well-defined contexts and methods, would languish. Tying Run Simple to the creation of a collaborative culture would be a great way to reverse the ironic status of social collaboration software: SAP could create a perfect raison d’etre for products like SAP Jam by making it an essential tool in the simplification revolution, and in doing so jumpstart a much-needed mini-revolution in collaboration and cooperation in the enterprise.
Hang Together or Hang Separately
Ben Franklin said it best in a different context — the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 — but his view on the need for cooperation and collaboration has traveled well from Colonial America in the 18th century to the cutthroat global business world of today.
“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Run Simple will be hard, but there’s really no other choice.
1 The belief that all individuals, or nearly all individuals, can succeed on their own and that government help for people should be minimal. [back]
2 The great-man theory is a 19th-century idea, popularized by Thomas Carlyle and Herbert Spencer, according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men,” or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact. [back]