I wrestled for 2 years when I was in elementary school. I was never all that good at it, but I did manage to win a few matches. Mostly, I only remember trying to sit against a wall in an invisible chair.
We were supposed to put our backs up against the wall and bend our legs into the sitting position and hold it for as long as we could. We would line up by age along the wall, with the youngest by the water fountains in the cafeteria. We could only hold out for a minute or so, and we would complain the whole time. Our muscles just weren’t ready for that kind of stress. The middle schoolers, though, could take it for upwards of five minutes and they didn’t make a sound. Somehow, the invisible chairs that they were sitting on held them up much better than ours did.
That was the game, though. Sitting in an invisible chair with our matching wrestling uniforms on. The chairs were pretend, as were most of the grunts and grimaces because we knew that we were going to give up at the first sign of real pain. We knew that there wasn’t any real point to powering through because there was no winning. The chairs would always be fake and we would always lose the game. It would always be more work than it was worth.
That is kind of the way that I feel about social networking within an organization. I can see the huge benefits to sharing information around an institution, allowing everyone to feed off of the smartest ideas and the most efficient workflow. The value of communication and collaboration is clear whenever an important document is created or a new feature is floated. And yet, it just feels like sitting in an invisible chair to try and get people to share information or collaborate with one another. It feels as though it is more trouble than it is worth, like I am exercising a muscle that I am never going to actually get to use.
At least it did, until today. Today, I saw a glimpse of what institutional social networking really could be if it was done right. This afternoon, I realized that lowering the barrier to entry was possible. I could be talking about Google Buzz or Wave coming to Google Apps or I could be talking about Facebook or LinkedIn really branching out into the business space. I could also be referencing Yammer or Ning or some other well known piece of social software. Instead, I am talking about a product that hasn’t been out more than a month and has none of the press of these much larger players.
I am talking about Flowr.
More accurately, though, I am talking about the fact that Flowr just created Google Apps integration with its social networking package. The software on its own, allows users to share status updates, ideas, polls, files, and events. Couple with the system that many institutions are already using for e-mail and collaboration equals WIN. It is mind-boggling that I will be able to login to a single space and share information with everyone in the institution via a social stream and then share different information specifically with groups that can then connect that information to Google Docs or Google Calendar Events. It is as if someone pushed a really comfy chair underneath me while I was trying yet again to lean against the wall with my knees bent.
I’m not saying its the holy grail, nor could any web application deserve that moniker. What I do mean to say is that by making such a vital part of connection in modern life that much easier, I believe that institutions may actually start to focus on what will actually cause them to succeed: valuing their humanity. By this I mean that companies will finally see that it is people sharing information and that the people are the ones that will add to the understanding and institutional knowledge and culture. While their is great lip service paid to this idea, it really is only when faced directly with the possibility of searching through (via a great search bar in Flowr) or filtering out (via tags) all of the contributions of an organization that people come to their senses about what is truly worthy of pursuit.
So, the game changes when the things that we thought were impossible become possible. When things that were once invisible become things you can depend upon. It is when you now need things that formerly didn’t exist. This will happen with enterprise social networking, but I think that it probably isn’t the biggest invisible thing that we will come to rely upon in the next few years.
More likely, our invisible chairs and muscle strains will become clearer with age. Just as the middle schoolers could hold it longer than we could in early elementary, we will start to realize just how valuable those chairs are going to be just as we need them to support the weight of our work.