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Why social tech's real value is inside the business

Robert L. Scheier | Dec. 20, 2011
Although companies have been urged to adopt "Web 2.0" and social technologies for years now, the truth is that relatively few have done so internally in any serious way -- and use inside the business is where the most value can be gained.

In an online world, collaboration tends to be through text-oriented venues. But that method of communication doesn't always fit the reality of complex tasks, understanding complicated information, and working together based on a shared corporate culture. One approach to make collaboration more humanly social is through the use of virtual interaction, such as via avatars. That's the idea behind ProtonMedia's 3D virtual environment for learning and collaboration.

It isn't cheap to develop the virtual SaaS environments; pilots typically cost $30,000 to 50,000, and full production systems typically cost $200,000 to $300,000. But compare that to contract clinical researcher Pharmaceutical Product Development, which usually spends $2 million a year sending field staff to central locations for training. The $650,000 it paid for ProtonMedia's service was still a bargain, says CIO Mike Wilkinson. Even better, he notes, the levels of engagement and knowledge retention in virtual training were as good as face-to-face sessions -- and in some ways better.

Unlike traditional classroom training, the virtual classes allow a student to "monitor data, and have their instructor in another part of the world or even their line manager in their region, monitor what they're doing" and provide real-time feedback, Wilkinson says. And although many people are "pretty shy" in a real classroom, they're more likely to speak up in the virtual environment because "it's kind of not you doing it, it's your avatar. It's a safer environment."

Crowdsourcing: Getting tasks done heaper, faster, and more flexibly

Another area where social technology has proven value is in crowdsourcing, a technology often associated with social media and gathering content for use in blogs, videos, and podcasts. But those are hardly the only areas where crowdsourcing can be applied.

CrowdFlower's "enterprise crowdsourcing platform," for example, taps 1.5 million online "contributors" for work such as trolling social media sites for information about sales prospects or ensuring eBay offerings are listed are in the right category. This can save as much as 40 percent compared to using a traditional outsourcer, the company claims. The contributors, who are recruited from gaming sites and other online venues, are paid as little as 5 cents for simple tasks and as much as $10 for more involved work such as taking a picture of a physical location.

uTest crowdsources testing to "contributors" whom it categorizes based on their technical skills, geography, and demographic characteristics. Direct marketing and teleservices firm RuffaloCody estimates uTest costs only 15 percent of what using its own staff for load, functionality, and user acceptance testing would have entailed, says Paul Ruffalo, the firm's director of information systems. He also says the crowd-based testers did a better job than in-house engineers of finding creative ways to break the software and ensure it will work, allowing the firm to find and deploy fixes more quickly than it could in the past.


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