The power of social automation

The great thing about modernizing an enterprise application for social computing is that the application can be enhanced in ways that weren't possible when it was brought into the Internet age, for example.

The ultimate value of social business may not be in the areas of customer engagement and employee knowledge management and collaboration. Those things certainly have tremendous and clearly demonstrable benefits, but the greatest opportunity in the years ahead may be in the social enablement and modernization of enterprise applications.

So far, though, this area has gotten little attention. That will probably change; Gartner predicts that as early as 2015, 20% of enterprises that employ social media beyond marketing will lead their industries in revenue growth. I believe that the value will derive primarily from what I'd term "social automation."

Many enterprise applications are legacy tools that remain vital to running core operations. They often automate key business transactions such as managing flight bookings at an airline, transferring funds at a bank or distributing financial aid at a government agency. And many of them have been modernized, so that they are accessible via browsers, mobile devices and the cloud. Today, they are being enhanced and modernized anew, this time for social computing. (See my column on charting a four-phase adoption cycle for this.)

The great thing about modernizing an enterprise application for social computing is that the application can be enhanced in ways that weren't possible when it was brought into the Internet age, for example. Then, you could make an application accessible from a browser, but the application itself still worked pretty much the same. With adaptations for social computing, however, you can advance the overall level of automation for business processes by adding social automation to the existing transactional automation.

Those are the areas where the automation of transactions fell short. Every time an exception occurred that required human intervention, the application ground to a halt. Social automation is a way to lubricate the gears and keep those applications humming with fewer interruptions that require human intervention.

Of course, many human interactions cannot and should not be automated, and human collaboration and decision-making are vital parts of the equation. So social automation doesn't mean removing the human element completely; it simply means using social business technologies to help further aid and partially automate human collaboration and decision-making processes where appropriate.

You can think of this as modernizing enterprise applications so they support both transactions and collaborative processes, just as information systems now need to support both structured and unstructured data. That's to say the ad hoc and collaborative nature of social computing complements transactional applications in much the same way that big data techniques complement traditional structured data analytics.

How social computing enhances transactional business applications

With transactional applications ... With social enablement ...
Collaboration and workflow are manual processes outside of the transactional application: Ad hoc, collaborative workflow complements the highly structured nature of transactional applications. Social computing complements transactional application processes by supporting, integrating and automating essential ad hoc, collaborative workflows.
Exception handling is a manual process outside of the transactional application: Exception handling is often managed with slow, manual or out-of-application processes. Performing exception handling through social-enabled channels helps to automate manual, time-consuming techniques, thus reducing cycle times.
Decision-making is a manual process outside of the transaction application: Transactional applications often require employee collaboration and knowledge-sharing for decision-making. Many transactional applications still require employee decision-making, which can be streamlined with collaborative tools so that more informed decisions can be made more rapidly.
Source: Nicholas Evans

Application Characteristics for Social Modernization

Naturally, not all applications are equal, and some will be far better candidates than others for modernization with social computing. So what are the typical characteristics that make an enterprise application a good candidate? Here are a few examples:

* High collaboration and/or decision-making requirements: Applications that require employee collaboration and knowledge-sharing for workflow and/or decision-making purposes (e.g., customer relationship management, insurance claims processing)

* Excessive cycle times: Strong business case for improvement in transactional cycle times (e.g., supply chain management, enterprise resource planning)

* Frequent exception handling: Exception handling that is currently handled by slow, manual or "out-of-application" processes (e.g., case management applications in health and human services)

* Extensive information integration requirements: Requirements for integration and visibility of external newsfeeds and information (e.g., citizen reporting to government agencies, airline pricing applications)

* High costs related to current forms of collaboration: Significant costs dealing with exceptions and problem resolution outside of, but related to, transactional application processes

In short, you want to look for instances where a compelling business benefit would arise from having your knowledge workers collaborate with one another within the context of their major business processes and transactional applications. By collaborating within the transactional application itself, as opposed to via manual or "out-of-band" techniques such as e-mail, phone calls and in-person meetings, these steps can be further automated and streamlined.

As an example, in recent years, customer relationship management (CRM) has been a key target for social enablement with many software providers adding social features to their offerings. It allows sales executives to work with the CRM system not just as a transactional system of record, but also to as a collaborative hub with their peers, exchanging best practices, news and insights across lead, opportunity and case management processes.

In the coming years, CRM is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, as the value of social business and social automation extends across a broad range of mission-critical enterprise functions. Think enterprise resource planning, supply chain management and a host of custom-built, mission-critical, transactional applications where any of these application characteristics hold true.

Nicholas D. Evans leads the Strategic Innovation Program for Unisys and was one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2009. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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