A recent Twitter exchange between @codorniou and @sharonodea on whether Workplace by Facebook is an Enterprise Social Network sparked some thoughts about the way we describe what we do, and the tools we use.
It’s not a surprise that an employee of Workplace by Facebook has a strong view on how that tool should be described. But does it matter to an employee whether it should be called an ‘Enterprise Social Network’ or not? No.
If ‘Facebook’ is a mainstream concept, which I’d suggest it is, then understanding what ‘Workplace by Facebook’ is shouldn’t be a stretch for an employee. In my experience employees generally refer to an application by the name of the tool, rather than its function. You submit expenses through ‘Concur’, not ‘the expenses management system’. The same is true for localised or bespoke tools. My organisation’s HR system is called ‘My People Online’, not by its vendor name.
The rudimentary social feed provided by out the box Sharepoint 2013 is called the ‘activity feed’ in my office. Suppose, though, I need to explain the difference between it and Yammer for my colleagues. “Well, er, one is a microblog, and the other is an Enterprise Social Network”. This might not be the most helpful description.
Which puts us in a bit of a bind: the terms we use as practitioners to make distinctions between technologies may be just jargon to others, yet what vocabulary can we use to position and demystify digital technology? In a context where, for example, I have colleagues still asking if they can ‘get a SharePoint ‘ (i.e. a teamsite), we need a vocabulary that helps us overcome challenges of basic comprehension before we even start thinking about improving digital literacy.
I asked fellow practitioners to provide some examples of words and terms they find problematic. It’s not exhaustive but it illustrates that we’re using terminology with fluid meanings, or words that have a definition so broad they are starting to lose their value.
- Digital workplace
Collaboration is a perfect example of the issue. For me, it has always been a clumsy way of expressing ‘working with others using online tools to exchange knowledge and ideas’. It hasn’t been helped, however, by its liberal use in conjunction with largely unprovable claims about how it will bust us out our silos into a utopian, knowledge-sharing future, where everyone works so out loud there’s a need for an office quiet carriage just to get anything done.
I’m sure we can agree
Conversely, we do seem to have settled on a meaning for some of the words we use. ‘Social’ has become a sort of shorthand for a user-generated interaction with either content or other colleagues.
And interestingly there seems to be agreement that certain terms should be run out of town. ‘Social collaboration’ is probably the best example. To be fair, it’s a dog’s breakfast of a locution.
And so to ‘Digital’
Which brings us to the term ‘digital’ itself. Some commentators view it as an unhelpful word, because it compartmentalises digital skills and literacy, and everyone requires those to operate successfully in modern jobs. By badging things with ‘digital’, those who don’t have a digital role don’t need to worry about it, as the ‘digital’ team or person will handle it.
But then how do we neatly encapsulate what we do for colleagues? Plenty of us have a broad remit that covers managing multiple channels, implementing governance, providing subject matter expertise and more, all in the context of services that are either online, or wholly computer-based. Digital becomes a handy, even necessary catch-all. The debate continues.
The good news: language evolves
Let’s not beat ourselves up. It’s worth reflecting that digital roles and practices, and many tools and services, have only entered the mainstream in the last decade. The worldwide web has only been a common business tool since the turn of the century. Facebook and Twitter only arrived in the mid-2000s. We’ve had to create words to describe what these tools do, and words to explain what we do with them, and those words are very young.
Their use will evolve over time. Some words will settle on a meaning, while others will change again. Ultimately it means our communication skills are as important to what we do as our aptitude with technology.