Social business is more than just conversation. If implemented properly, it can be a route to more effective operation and, by extension, higher profits. Most companies are nowadays managed through processes, and in this post I will explore the ways social business can be designed with a focus on process improvement.
The good old ways with a social twist
Social business design can take the regular process improvement route, and utilize the new tools at its disposal to improve process performance in traditional ways.
Eliminating process phases
One of the most obvious ways to improve a process is to redesign it so that some of the previously needed phases can be eliminated. This brings about many benefits from the process being more simple to understand to reducing lead time.
Social networking tools can be used to simplify processes in this way, for example by transferring work to a social platform: instead of documents being produced locally and then uploaded to a repository, they are immediately available upon creation. The process phase where uploading takes place is removed entirely.
Reducing wait time between process phases
One of the most common findings in many Lean improvement initiatives is the realization of the amount of inventory (either physical or non-physical) that is gathered between process phases. Even if the phases themselves operate effectively, that is not of much use if the queues between them are long.
Social networking tools can be used to reduce wait times by making the information of completed process phases more readily available.
Improving process phases by eliminating non-value-added work
This is probably the most traditional process improvement technique in the book: evaluate how work is performed and try to find out ways to do it more effectively.
Social networking tools offer some great possibilities for this type of improvement as well. Work that used to be necessary, even though it added no value, can be rendered completely unnecessary and eliminated from the process. Just consider maintaining an ISO 9001 compliant quality management system in the 90s with paper binders compared to what can be done today if all the users have access to a computer. Updating paper binders, destroying obsolete documentation, all gone. Everything is automatically up to date and full change history is just one click away on a wiki platform.
I realize that the improvements that are considered eliminating work within a process phase or eliminating process phases depends on your exact definition of what a process phase consists of, but both are useful concepts regardless of the operating definition.
Wait, is this new?
No, it isn’t. This is your run-of-the-mill process improvement implemented with social networking tools. I acknowledge that some of my examples could even be achieved with online tools that are not social. However, the importance of this type of improvement has not disappeared or even been reduced in any way, it is still the hard core of improvement initiatives, and social networking tools are just like any other tools when it comes to this type of process improvement. It remains important to find specific ways to improve your processes in these ways with social networking tools.
However, there is more.
And now for something completely different
In what follows, I will argue that social networking tools also enable types of improvement that have not been considered particularly useful, but this time they are enabled in use cases where they are both useful and were previously unattainable.
Skipping process phases
Social networking tools enable the creation of processes where some of the steps are intentionally skipped some of the time.
An example will help illustrate this point: in a social feedback system I described earlier, it sometimes happens that feedback is spotted by people who can correct the particular issue directly from the activity stream, and the correction takes place before the function responsible for allocating feedback is able to create a task about it.
This type of process improvement is unique to social business, because it applies to circumstances where there is no obvious way to immediately determine the correct person needed for the task. Therefore, no reliable process for rapidly forwarding the information to the correct recipient can be built.
Crucially, our world is full of these types of situations, and they are often very important. A machine breaks down in an unexpected way – how will you find the person who can help? Social networking is highly effective in these types of situations, although I would not design a system where the only response is to post a question on a Q&A board. The company needs to have a reliable, even if slower, process to ensure success, but social networking tools can be used to skip some of the steps in this process sometimes and thus improve lead time in those cases.
Uh, wait.. Doesn’t that increase variability within the process, and, you know, variability is kind of a bad thing? Yes, it does increase variability. And no, variability is not always bad. Obviously, you would not want to design these types of processes for a mass production line, where it is crucial that all phases are able to reliably complete their task within the takt time and phases that do this but are then out of work half the time because of doing their task too fast are simply suboptimal.
However, in many situations the mere increase in variability, especially given that the maximum time is not affected, is not harmful at all. Would you rather have a production line up and running after a fault 100% of the time in 30 minutes, or 10% of the time in 10 minutes and the rest 90% of the time in 30 minutes? Given that the maximum downtime is not extended, I would in most cases choose the latter (in some cases it might be possible to reallocate 30 minutes worth of some other work, which might affect the conclusion).
Receiving unexpected help with a process phase
Social networking tools enable the creation of processes where serendipity can affect the result of some or all of the process phases.
I will give another example from a social feedback system: because all feedback is public and shown in the activity streams, sometimes people who are not involved with the particular activity that the feedback is about jump in with useful suggestions or even a complete solution to an issue.
Now, there is no way a traditional process could be designed so that information is sent to everyone at the company, let’s say by email to make it even worse. Furthermore, there is often no way to determine who are all the people who might be able to help with a given problem. So, there is the traditional process that ensures a reasonable resolution within a reasonable period of time, and it is enhanced through social networking tools to sometimes give better results.
Crucially, the processes that can be improved through this type of design are usually both important and by their very nature fuzzy. They are things such as sudden repairs, problem-solving, and ideation. Again, not a tool for the regular operation of a mass production line, but for much of what happens around it or even at it in irregular circumstances.
Serendipity loves company
Even though the benefits unique to a social business arise in certain types of processes, it is a good idea to look for ways to improve your other processes with social networking tools in a more traditional fashion. This is because in order to get the full benefits of serendipity, you need to have as many and as various people using the system as possible: if they are not using the platform, how can they spot where their help could be useful?
Luckily, social networking tools are often the most effective choice in many traditional environments as well, even though in some cases traditional tools may be just as effective. In such cases though, the benefits that accrue to the enterprise as a whole push the benefits of social networking tools above traditional solutions.