Social software, productivity, and innovation

It’s a frequently-encountered belief in many mainstream businesses that tools like instant messaging and discussion forums, particularly when used for conversations outside the company, are a drain on productivity.

Not so, says John Seely Brown, former director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, in a recent article in the New York Times about technology and worker efficiency:

Mr. Brown also points to the rapid development of what he calls “social software” like instant messaging, Weblogs, wikis (multi-user Weblogs) and peer-to-peer tools – all of which make it easier for workers to communicate and collaborate online, almost instantaneously.

The combined result, Mr. Brown said, is information technology that can amplify social interaction and enhance workers’ understanding of what is happening around them. The benefit, he added, could be to increase their ability to “collectively improvise and innovate.”

That is a key to productivity and peak performance, according to Mr. Brown. Business, he said, is a lot like soccer. In soccer, there are some set plays, but the best teams also display a wealth of effective improvisation based on the players’ deep knowledge of one another. “It’s the same in the best corporations or start-ups,” he said.