Thursday, June 9, 2011

Creating competitive advantage with social software

Some technologies eventually become like air. We don't think much about them. They just exist. We expect them to always be available to us. We take them for granted. We just want to use them.

These technologies don't help to create competitive advantage by themselves. They just need to be there if a business is to stay in business. Technologies such as email and telephony are like air today. So is word processing and calendaring. Instant messaging and web conferencing are on their way to become like air. Other candidates that might eventually become invisible are RSS, wikis, social bookmarking and micro-blogging. New, yet unknown candidates will for sure emerge. A business needs, sooner or later, to have these technologies in place. In the short term, they might be used to create competitive advantage. But in the long term, every business will have them and the technologies themselves will not differ too much from business to business.

What does create competitive advantage is how we use technologies, how we let them affect our practices and behaviors. A new technology can be used to change what we communicate, with whom, when and how and thereby help to create better practices and behaviors. If technologies are carefully selected and applied, they can help to create competitive advantage.

It is different when technologies are new and not everybody has access to them. For a business that is looking at how it can use social software, it really boils down to two things:

  1. Identifying which social technologies will become like air and make sure to get these in place. There is no need to wait if it has become a mature and widely adopted technology.
  2. Continuously exploring social principles and technologies and using them when trying to find solutions to business problems or when trying to find and address new business opportunities. Such solutions could make it easier to find and use expertise, build collective intelligence, capture tacit knowledge, facilitate innovation, crowd-source work, and so forth.

To sum up, there are basically two paths to creating competitive advantage with information technology:

  1. Adopt and learn to use new technologies before competitors do.
  2. Find new and innovative uses of existing technologies before competitors copy you.

If you put your focus on improving practices with the use of information technology, it becomes natural to follow combine both of these paths.