- People waste a lot of time on social networks: not so agile
- Direct lines of communication emphasize person to person contact: pretty agile
So when I see something like RedMonk's Social IT or Spiceworks' Social Commerce I don't know whether to think about them as being at the cutting edge of Agile Operations or just as sort of pointless marketing gimmicks.
I think that social media can be leveraged in ways that have value to folks trying to put together Agile Operations environments. The real-time feedback and immersion provided by social networking tools can be invaluable to connecting with users in the way that agile requires. I think that many times, technologists go a little overboard in driving such interaction, and often miss the point of why those techniques are successful in the first place. I remember reviewing a CMDB product that came out a few years ago, just as the Web 2.0 hype cycle was hitting its peak, which promised to integrate all the cool new "social networking" features with the traditional requirements for managing a change management database. Perhaps not coincidentally, I believe RedMonk was involved with that, too. The product was ridiculed sufficiently that the company basically stopped advertising the social media features and started pitching it as a plain old CMDB front-end. I never got a chance to work with anyone who implemented it.
My observation at the time, however, was that it seemed unlikely that a dry, isolated topic like change management was ever going to build sufficient mass to make the social networking features worth anything. Social networking doesn't just happen, and it's not just a widget you can snap on; it's a function of participation, and the utility it has is driven largely by how many people you can convince to use it with intimacy and frequency. I still believe that to be true, and that most internal initiatives that attempt to replicate the social networking experience outside its more public haunts are doomed to failure.
To the extent that you can leverage the social media platforms that your users are already involved with, I think it can have an important role to play in enhancing Agile Operations. There are some very special-purpose applications that can also benefit from focused internal social networking. Software development environments may be among those. Purchasing or IT management systems? Those strike me as being services that most users want to utilize and be done with. Small subsets of folks enjoy solving problems, contributing information, and discussing the disaster du jour, but most people have a problem they want to have solved so they can then go back to work. Interacting with and connecting information is all well and good, but it's not social networking, it's just smart software design.
Getting back to the two original points about the potential contribution of social networking to agile operations, then, I would say that you have to find a way to leverage the factors that make people want to waste their time poking around with such services and secretly turn that into productive time serving your operation. And one way to do that is to get in front of the services that folks are using anyway and using them to provide that direct and immediate interaction with the people on your staff they need to work with. If you can do this to take a process that had previously siphoned off value from that person's day and make it a useful part of their time wasting, you have a win: you have tapped into their participation and interest in a way that has made your operation more agile.
Participation and interest are limited and vital qualities for an IT manager or CIO to tap into among business staff. They are important factors in making projects successful. So the last thing you should do is squander them in the service of applications that are only likely to dull and diminish them.