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What our social tools don’t do. Yet.

A casual investigation of social technologies in the workplace reveals a disconcerting truth: there is a great deal going on that social business tools don’t support. Now, on one hand, that might be unsurprising, since people operate at many levels and in some we may not even be aware of what we are up to, like unconscious flirtation, or the ways that our pupils dilate and contract based on what is being seen. But on the other hand, some of the missing use cases suggest that our social tools just are too primitive to usher in the social millennium just yet.

Take just one example: negotiation. We have many tools organized around projects and tasks, where others invite us to participate, but there is almost no way provided to negotiate about the proposed participation. For example, imagine that we are coworkers and I want to assign a task to you. In all my exploration into task management tools, I haven’t found a single tool that would allow you the opportunity to say, ‘Maybe, but let’s make a deal’. Now the deal might be purely financial if you are a freelancer or consultant working with me on a time and materials basis, for example (a sector of the workforce that is growing rapidly). Or the discussion could be about other deadlines shifting, or ‘timeframing’ the new task for a later date. Or a dozen other reasons to negotiate the terms of the work involved.

I’ve been told by tool vendors that their tools do allow such negotiation. Users can exploit direct messaging, or comment threads, or attach documents to the tasks, and so on. But this is often problematic, since the tasks and projects may be shared with others, and the negotiators may want the discussion to be private. And in some cases, it’s just not possible: if you invite me to join a project supported in Yammer or Podio, and I want to negotiate first, where do we negotiate? I haven’t joined the project yet, after all.

The implicit answer is that social tool makers — at least of the tools we have today — have opted to a very narrowly defined subset of work-related use cases. And then they define ‘success’ as making those use cases work. I bet they actually don’t even ‘see’ the negotiation going on, because people opt to use other means to get it done, like email, phone, or face-to-face talking. But this is a mistake, because a reasonable implementation that would support negotiation would add a rich social dimension currently lacking, and it would be managed in an integrated way.

For example, imagine that you could respond to my task invitation by clicking one of three buttons on the task — yes, no, maybe — and in each case the task tool would allow a private but contextually-linked discussion thread. Perhaps you would click on maybe, and add ‘I have some tight deadlines this week, but could get to it by middle of next week’. Perhaps that’s good for me, and I would reply ‘That works’ and change the deadline on the task accordingly. Or if you are a freelancer, you might say, ‘I can do that webinar for $1500’, and the task tool would allow me to accept the fee, decline it, or counteroffer.

Ok, a longwinded example. But one that supports my core point. No task management tool does this, but people do. We are constantly negotiating, and we wind up doing it in email, or by other means, but outside of our immature social tools. And this stands as a confirmation of why we are seeing serious adoption reluctance for social business tools: 57% of companies in a Dachis Group study suggests 20% or less or less engagement in social tools when available. Who wants to use a work media application if you constantly have to step back into email every time a task gets assigned?

But I have hopes that things can change. For example, in the research for a report on team task management tools (now in production), I reviewed the Action Method tool from Behance, and it supports task rejection — with comment — although not an extended negotiation:

The value of keeping users in the social tools and not wandering back to email in order to get things done is significant, but it will take a real analysis of communication pathways in work for tool makers to build more compelling and comprehensive tools.

Consider the investigation into basketball dynamics led by researchers at Arizona State University, Jenifer Fewell and Dieter Armbruster, looking into the results of the 2010 NBA playoffs.

Brian Mossop, Basketball Isn’t A Sport. It’s A Statistical Network.

To analyze basketball plays, Fewell and Armbruster used a technique called network analysis, which turns teammates into nodes and exchanges — passes — into paths. From there, they created a flowchart of sorts that showed ball movement, mapping game progression pass by pass: Every time one player sent the ball to another, the flowchart lines accumulated, creating larger and larger and arrows.

Using data from the 2010 playoffs, Fewell and Armbruster’s team mapped the ball movement of every play. Using the most frequent transactions — the inbound pass to shot-on-basket — they analyzed the typical paths the ball took around the court.

Network analysis of the Chicago Bulls, showing the majority of ball interaction remained with the point guard. Image: Jennifer Fewell and Dieter Armbruster

Network analysis of the Los Angeles Lakers shows the team is far more likely to distribute the ball among more players, using the “triangle offense.” Image: Jennifer Fewell and Dieter Armbruster

As you may recall, the Laker’s ‘triangle offense’ led to more variability in passing, which made defense harder and — voilá — the Lakers did better. Or as Armbruster told Mossop, ‘Entropy wins games.’

My point is not basketball, though. My point is that this sort of network analysis is revolutionizing sports, just like the statistical analysis of Moneyball led to a break with old school approaches to evaluating players’ value.

And a similar breakthrough is possible in the workforce, if the large software companies now trying to dominate social business would expend some research money there. I’m sure that a deep social network analysis of the work going on today’s world of work would quickly yield insights into how much time is spent negotiating around work requests, for example. And a hundred other commonplace social interactions that fall outside the lines painted in today’s social tools. And then we would see a new generation of more capable social tools, designed to support our connections at a much deeper level.