“Access to People” vs. “Access to Information”

Over the last 10+ years, social networking has fundamentally and forever altered how people build and maintain meaningful relationships in their lives with content. Sharing billions of photos, videos, gifs and status updates about our pets, children, food, activities and more – content has become an indelible part of the fabric that connects us to the people we care about.

Companies (should) care about this because fostering meaningful relationships amongst co-workers is a big part of what drives a highly productive and engaged work force. Anecdotally, we can all appreciate that if you don’t like or feel connected to the people you work with you are less likely to work hard and stay long term. This, it turns out, costs companies a lot of money directly (attrition) and indirectly (lost productivity).

But the same kind of content sharing we use to build and maintain relationships in our personal lives is not happening in the workplace through traditional connection-based or large enterprise social networking platforms like Facebook, Instagram, etc. Billions of people use these platforms to share content with others because they make it easy to share something with everyone and see what everyone else is sharing (like I’m doing with this post!).

There are of course some drawbacks to this social networking model that preclude it as an effective tool for the enterprise, including:

  • Connections inevitably decay over time – as we go through life, the people we “care” about change but do not grow linearly. This makes our newsfeeds noisier over time
  • Our lack of privacy and control forces us to use a fragmented ecosystem of tools – we have hundreds of Facebook “friends” we hardly know but aren’t “friends” with the people we see at work every day

Enterprise technology platforms were (relatively) quick to see the opportunity for social networking in the workplace and so added features to support content sharing amongst the litany of other functionality they already had introduced – file sharing, calendars, project management, to-do lists, etc. And while these tools are excellent for driving productivity, they typically see low utilization and adoption as a hub for employees to chat and share photos and videos with one another:

  • Enterprise tools offer a huge array of functionality and and their DNA is rooted in creating access to information and process (not people)
  • People don’t feel comfortable sharing personal content (ex: photo of their family) in the same environment they are accessing information and process – it feels out of place and irrelevant
  • Sharing personal content with co-workers must be as simple (fast and easy) as it is with the traditional social networking experience – it’s not “real time” just because a push notification is sent out when something new is shared. Real-time sharing requires the entire user experience to revolve around creating and consuming content.
  • Seeing a list of hundreds or thousands of other people isn’t the same thing as illuminating meaningful new connections based on common interests, affinities, etc.

One could argue that we have reached diminishing returns on new innovations with enterprise productivity tools — the core elements that created the biggest benefits like file-sharing, instant messaging, task management, to-do lists etc. are all there. While there is of course always room for improvement, how much additional value can an organization extract from a new productivity tool vs. what is already available today?

By contrast, employee turnover costs companies hundreds of billions (if not more) every year. And while lots of investment is already being made against this problem, technology focused on this area is in its nascent stages. Given its profound impact on employee engagement, I believe technologies that foster meaningful human interaction by prioritizing access to people (vs. access to information and process) will be the “next big thing” in SaaS.

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