Scrobbling business

Via Roo Reynolds I just came across Dale Lane’s TV scrobbling project. For those of you who don’t use the social music site Last.FM, ‘scrobbling‘ is the act of gathering attention data for analysis. Last.FM pioneered the scrobbling of listening data from people’s computers, allowing them to see at a glance what they listened to, what their friends listened to, and discover people with similar taste in music.

Dale has taken this idea a step further and has whipped up a scrobbler for his TV data. This wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the fact that Dale’s TV is also his computer. This gives him access to data that would otherwise be stuck inside a set-top box:

Tv Scrobbling

Similar software exists to track your attention during day-to-day work on your computer. I have RescueTime installed on my laptop. That gives me access to information about which applications I use and how much time I spend using them, and allows me to decide if an app is productive or not. It then scores my overall productivity accordingly. Sometimes the results can be surprising, for example, I spend a lot less time in email than I had thought, often less than half an hour a day, and I never look at email on the weekends. RescueTime also illustrates changing preferences for software. Here’s me experimenting with Google’s Chrome browser (olive green = Firefox; teal green = Chrome):

Rescuetime All Activities By Day

The aim of RescueTime, if you put the effort in to set it up properly, (e.g. choose which applications and websites you find distracting, neutral or productive), is to reveal where you can make productivity gains. If, for example, you discover that you spend a lot of time on Twitter and you find it to be very distracting then you can use RescueTime to track your progress in resisting its lure.

Of course, attention data can just become infoporn, producing endless pretty graphs that don’t help alter behaviour, so scrobbling isn’t a solution by itself. It could, however, form the basis of behavioural analysis and change projects that would not otherwise be possible. Productivity is the holy grail of the knowledge worker, but it’s hard to know how productive one is being as we’re not built to accurately track our actions as we carry them out. My guess for amount of time spent in Twitter, for example, was wildly higher than reality – I generally use it for less than an hour a day, which is not bad given my line of work.

Attention data scrobbling could also, with a clever bit of functionality design, help do away with timesheets, which I loathe to the core of my being. The key there, as with RescueTime, is understanding what constitutes ‘productivity’. Splitting behaviours out by application, or even by website, doesn’t necessarily tell you if you’re being productive. Time in instant messenger, for example, could be productive or it could be a distraction, depending on who you’re talking to and what you’re talking about. Scrobbling won’t solve that bit of the puzzle, but it would make a good starting point.

There is an obvious dark side to attention data scrobbling in business, though: such data could easily be misused by management as a stick to beat employees with. Care would need to be taken as to who could access what data, perhaps with data anonymised when accessed by management to prevent victimisation. There would also need to be an educational component to any scrobbling project to ensure that people knew what the data meant and how to act on it.

There’s such great opportunity here for both knowledge workers and the businesses who employ them. I’d love to hear from anyone using or interested in collecting and using attention data in this way.

The importance of voice

Does a more personal voice make information more credible? Carrie Brown-Smith writes that, in the news industry, there is some evidence that “a hint of personality” leads to “higher credibility”. She goes on to say:

A recent study by my former Mizzou colleagues Jeremy Littau, Liz Gardner, and Esther Thorson, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Boston last August, found that news with more opinion, voice, and analysis could be key in attracting younger readers. […]

They also tested the impact of voice on what is known in the academy as “political efficacy,” or the belief that you are able to act upon your knowledge.

What they found is that voice increases efficacy, in part because, unlike a dry, authoritative, institutional voice, it better engages your brain. It gets you thinking, actively processing the information, which in turn makes it more likely that you will not only remember this information, but feel empowered to act on it, too.

Understanding what encourages trust is very important indeed. Edelman’s Trust Barometer survey showed that across the board, trust in official channels of communication is declining:

Mirroring the erosion of trust in business this year, trust in every type of source of information about companies and of every type of spokesperson is down in most markets around the world. These lower levels of credibility suggest that business must engage with its audiences through multiple voices on multiple channels, especially since informed publics say they need to hear information several times before they will believe it.

If a more personal voice is key to reversing this decline in trust, then social media is an obvious way to do it. Now this might all seem like stating the obvious, but it’s worth going over this familiar ground. A lot of businesses have yet to shake off their fear of having actual, real humans speaking on their behalf. If they don’t, they’re going to find that a trust divide has opened up underneath their feet, with people trusting companies who are open, transparent and personable and not trusting those who use only corporate managed communications channels.

Social semantics

Andrew McAfee asks if the word “social” has so many negative connotations that it’s a potentially harmful word to use when trying to persuade managers that web 2.0 tools are worth investigating:

“It’s technically accurate… [but] I have rarely come across a word that has more negative connotations to busy, pragmatic line managers inside organizations. The best thing it is is neutral… the worst thing it is is a sign that we’re going to use these tools to waste time, to goof off, to plan happy hour, to do all these social activities. The impression I get from people who make decisions… is ‘I’m not running a social club. I’m trying to run a business here.’ ” (I accompanied this monologue with a picture intended to convey what flashes through an executive’s mind when he hears the word ‘social.’)

I discussed the baggage that comes with “social” last year:

Is ‘social’ the problem with social software? Certainly in the UK, ‘social’ has some rather negative connotations: Social workers are often despised and derided as interfering, and often incompetent, busybodies. Social housing is where you put people at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Social sciences are the humanities trying to sound important by putting on sciency airs. Social climbers are people who know how to suck their way up the ladder. Social engineering is getting your way deviously, by using people’s weaknesses against them. Social security is money you give people who can’t be bother work for themselves. Socialism is an inherently flawed system that is prone to corruption. Social disease is venereal.

Whether or not you agree with all of those descriptions – and for the record, I don’t – you have to admit that the word ‘social’ does have a bit of a bad rap. I wonder how much that influences people – in business and elsewhere – to dismiss ‘social media’, ‘social networks’ and ‘social tools’ before they have even found out what they are and what they’re good for.

I still think that the word “social” is a problem. But I’m not sure that it either can or should be replaced. If a company balks at the word “social” before even looking at how social tools can be used to help their people get stuff done, then they have deeper problems than those that social tools can help with.

When provided a choice, do people choose?

Social software is a strange beast in terms of corporate software. The best social tools are developed by small software houses or ad hoc groups of open source developers. Often they are much more usable than traditional corporate tools, more lightweight and more flexible. Comparing WordPress, which is basically a content management system, with some of the CMSes I used back when I was a web designer/developer, the difference is stunning. WordPress is just so much simpler to use and easier to manage.

But for me, the key difference between traditional enterprise software and social software is that in almost all cases, social software is elective. If your business decides to change its email client or accounts package, for example, there’s nothing users can do but get on with it. Social tools, on the other hand, frequently replace existing tools/processes such as email and meetings and are almost always optional. Users often opt not to bother.

The successful implementation of social software doesn’t stop with a technically successful roll-out. In fact, that’s when the process begins because that’s when your adoption strategy should kick in.

Adoption is ultimately about behaviour change: persuading people that, for example,

instead of sending an email to everyone with a new version of a document they are working on, they should put it on a wiki where it’s easier to collaborate. This might seem like a small step – and for a few people it is – but for the majority that’s a fundamental change to the way that they have learnt to work on documents.

When we are faced with these sorts of changes we tend to resist. I’d hazard a guess that neophobia is much more common than neophilia (which is why you can spot us neophiliacs a mile off!), and the assumption that people will resist should be front and centre in social media project roll-out plans.

In short, the implementation of social software is not a technical project, it’s a behavioural change project.