Christopher Cummings makes a good argument for skepticism about many overheated claims about social media. You'd think that any overheated claim would inspire skepticism, but that ain't necessarily so.
In fact, you might write a history of the last century's overheated claims that never came to fruition, from Soon we will all be living in the dictatorship of the proletariat to In a generation we'll have permanent colonies on the moon and Mars to Dotcoms have re-written the rules of economics. People hope that the people making these overheated claims are visionaries, not idiots, or just opportunists exploiting the latest enthusiasm. Sometimes, they're actually right.
Obviously, we're going through a hothouse phase in the development of social media, when all kinds of speculation grow like kudzu. Chris takes special issue with the idea that social media will replace most face-to-face connections, or should replace them. For product managers, the risk is relying too much on social media for insights about customers.
Yes, social media done correctly in the PM sphere can help us hear
about customer pain points, monitor the competition, and engage key
influencers in the marketplace. But it comes at a cost that few seem
willing to talk about.
I'll disagree slightly with that statement. Chris' target may be the claim, certainly overheated, that social media will entirely replace the traditional forms of requirements. If that's the case, we're not in disagreement at all. I'm a strong advocate for adding "inbound" social media to the requirements mix--heck, I wrote a three-part series on the topic--but I don't think that new media will elbow the old media out of the picture.
Yes, social media done correctly in the PM sphere can help us hear about customer pain points, monitor the competition, and engage key influencers in the marketplace. But it comes at a cost that few seem willing to talk about.
A lot of the traditional requirements sources were just as impersonal as a blog, discussion forum, or social networking site. In fact, they were even more impersonal, and in many cases, even more misleading. If only the specificity about enhancement requests in "I have a customer (IHAC)" e-mails matched their urgency. (If only you could have confidence in the urgency.) If only the enhancements recorded in the bug database were less cryptic.
In fact, if you were to replace the phrase social media with e-mail, you'd get something that a product manager might have written 15 years ago.
Face-to-face contacts aren't all they're cracked up to be, either. They have a very important place in requirements. In fact, they're irreplaceable. Any executive who thinks that you can do product management without face time with real users, buyers, and stakeholders is an idiot. Worse, the executive in question is contributing to the mistakes that cost technology companies time, money, and good will.
But executives are right in pressing for cost-effectiveness in requirements-gathering. If you have the opportunity to get supplementary information at a lower cost, why wouldn't you take it?
The big issue is how requirements gathering via social media should work. It's a new discipline, which is another way of saying, "It's going to take effort, time, and skill to do it right."
Here's one part of the discipline that's critically important: social media habits change by demographic. You certainly can't project your social media habits onto those of car dealers, research scientists, and accountants. By demographic slice, people participate more or less, have different goals, and vary in how much they participate in certain activities (contributing, commenting, collecting, etc.).
Therefore, if your requirements research depends on finding a lot of automotive engineers hanging around Facebook, you're out of luck. They don't "hang around" anywhere, in the physical or the electronic world. An automotive engineer who spent the day exposed to social media would be a major oddball, on the order of the title character of Randy Newman's old song, "Naked Man."
However, automotive engineers do use social media in other ways, so learning the inbound social media discipline is hardly pointless. I can tell you from both personal experience, and observing people trying to make social media work in this capacity, that it's damn hard to do right. But so is spending a day digging through the bug database for all the enhancement requests you've ignored during the last two releases.