Unified Collaboration: How Social Business and Other Forms of Digital Engagement are Intertwining

The rich history of digital collaboration in the last 30 years has been a long and winding one. Fortunately, it’s also been a highly rewarding story that has led to literally historic advances in workforce productivity and efficiency for most organizations. Along the way, many of these advances have led to and made possible entirely new and powerful types of work scenarios.

However, I find that many organizations still treat digital collaboration as 1) a largely tactical activity that doesn’t require much deliberate enablement, structure, or process 2) mostly separate from digital engagement in general and 3) a needed capability to be solved primarily through deployment of technology, rather than from the point of view of enabling activities between people. These three tendencies alone lead to much of the shortfalls I’ve seen when new collaboration efforts sometimes underperform.

The Intertwining of Unified Communications, Lightweight Collaboration, and Social Business into Unified Collaboration

The three new categories of digital collaboration

As collaboration has evolving during the rise of the social and mobile era, I’ve found that the last decade in particular has lead to some of the most significant and increasingly disruptive refinements in the practice:

  • Social Business (internal). This is the high concept rethinking of how we work together to be more community-centric, open, and participative. It consists of a varied set of practices — depending on whose model you are following — that typically consists of business processes redesigned around new social tools such as enterprise social networks, content/document management platforms, online communities, or even enterprise microblogging services. Needless to say for those of us who have been involved, a tremendous amount of energy and thought across the collaboration industry has gone into how organizations can achieve numerous benefits if they can reorganize the way teams and even entire companies can better work together using the potent model of social media. Techniques typically include Working Out Loud, the redesign of business processes to be more participative, and all the other activities involved in large-scale social business transformation.

    Organizations have seen results across the spectrum with their social business efforts, though there have been common pitfalls, especially when the notion of ‘Facebook for the Enterprise’ has been the goal, instead of solving urgent business problems (like trying to resolve poor collaboration between specific internal groups, or making certain key processes more transparent and efficient) The general consensus however is that there is a 25% enterprise-wide benefit in terms of productivity. Lately, the drum beat on social business has taken a bit more of a back seat to full-spectrum focus on digital business transformation in many organizations. Social business has continued to evolve however, and we’ve just now reached the end of the beginning in my opinion.

  • Unified Communications. Rarely considered at the same time or in conjunction with social business initiatives, unified communications has been making steady inroads into the corporate world, despite some fairly rocky evolution over the years. The unified communications industry has attempted to sort out and make consistent the various digital communications channels within the enterprise, but has often missed major developments in the industry. The most inexplicable oversight was that unified communications vendors missed the social media revolution almost entirely, though that has now been partially addressed in some of the leading platforms now, though it took years to resolve. This meant unified communications was sometimes anything but. The issue continues to persist as new and emerging enterprise collaboration channels such as mobile apps, the explosion in enterprise file sync and sharing such as Dropbox, and even legacy content/document solutions are often still left out in the cold by unified communications solutions. Despite these additions — and I think the continuing rapid rise of new collaboration channels will remain the top problem for the approach — unified communications has become increasingly capable of delivering a core set of well integrated solutions for chat, voice, video, and presence, and now finally e-mail, social, and mobile.

    Notably, unified communications has taken nearly the opposite approach of social business. Instead of a fundamental rethinking of work in digital/social terms, it’s a much more workman like approach to providing handy new digital communication toolkits to the worker that can be used for collaboration. In the final analysis, however, the unified communications approach has been slow to deal with the important strategic issues that social business aims to address: The unfortunate “evaporation” of digital knowledge in older tools, poor visibility and participation (not enough eyeballs) in legacy collaboration methods, and the still pervasive inability to find knowledge or people in most organizations, to name just a few. Despite all this, the market for unified communications, particularly in the cloud, is now poised for a major wave of growth.

  • Collaboration suites, next-gen intranets, and lightweight collaboration apps. Recently, a number of new collaboration approaches or digital methods have emerged, some full collaborative toolkits, others just filling in still-unaddressed or just emerging point needs within organizations, or both, a strategy Google is increasingly following with their cloud offerings. These are not as comprehensive or one-stop-shop solutions for collaboration or re-imagining how workers interact with each other and produce value, but organizations are broadly considering them in general as white spaces emerge, often without considering their collaborative workplace strategy as a whole.

Given these three rough buckets of new collaborative focus within the enterprise, most of which happen in isolation from one another in the average organization, it’s been interesting to see how they’ve operated either as genuine silos or as so-called ‘frenemies’, working together a little but competing for each others user bases. But, gratifyingly in my view, some organizations are increasingly no longer so accepting of these fragmented efforts, and are proactively trying to do something about it.

The emergence of unified collaboration

I’ve been spending most of 2014 looking at what large organizations have been doing to evolve their collaborative environments and I’ve noticed several distinct trends:

  1. A strong drive for meaningful integration between collaborative silos. I’ve noticed there has been a sharp drop in tolerance for collaborative processes to be stuck in one place, platform, or audience, and not searchable or visible elsewhere. For example, I’m seeing that organizations are now seeking to connect intranets, enterprise social networks, and content/document management systems in much more meaningful ways. As Alan Lepofsky has observed recently, mail and social networks are starting to merge as well. Unified comms is also getting embedded everywhere and within many applications. I now believe we will witness considerable investment in the next couple of years in creating bridges between collaborative silos and meaningful presence for collaborative tools in business applications in general.
  2. Development of a true enterprise-wide view of digital collaboration strategy. Organizations are increasingly getting their act together and making sense of their collaborative efforts well above the level of the technologies themselves, putting together more purpose-driven plans that eliminate confusion, fragmentation, and inconsistency with collaboration technology while updating worker skills and shifting company culture to take better advantage of the possibilities. This includes, as Stowe Boyd has noted, the measurement and quantification of the collaborative environment in real-time, which I’ve found has been vital in producing feedback to guide a collaboration strategy in flight towards impactful results.
  3. An advanced notion of unified collaboration. As a direct results of the first true trends, I’m seeing the organic emergence of an important concept I’ll call unified collaboration. This is the strategic knitting together of plans, the full portfolio of collaborative technologies, and business objectives enterprise-wide into more cohesive whole. It stands out from mere unified communication by being much more overarching, contextual to the business, scenario-centric, and goal-oriented. It also reflects the understanding that there is more to collaboration than just the next big thing (aka social business), and that collaboration in all its many forms must be better and more comprehensively supported, reconciled, and enabled.

I think these trends — along with important ones like enterprise-wide knowledge streams — herald great things in the enterprise when it comes to collaboration and represents a sort of maturity proof point. I’ve begun collecting industry examples of these trends and will share them soon. Please send me your stories and case examples if you’d like me to add them.

Additional Reading:

How to Deliver on a Modern Enterprise Collaboration Strategy

Realizing Effective Digital Collaboration in the Enterprise

Rethinking Work in the Collaborative Era

Finally, I’ll be talking about this topic and others later this month at my afternoon keynote at the Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT 2014 in London. It would be great to meet you there.
Dion Hinchcliffe will give the afternoon keynote at theEnterprise 2.0 SUMMIT in London

Defining the Next Generation Enterprise for 2014

Many of you know that over the last several years I’ve tried to make the case that most organizations are currently falling behind the advancing pace of technological change. That business is so centered around technology today is the reason why addressing this has become a top competitive issue. Becoming better adapted to tech change is even tied to the medium-term survival of many organization as I recently explored in my look at digital transformation.

But to say that technology alone is what is disrupting traditional businesses would be inaccurate. We ourselves have changed — have co-evolved — along with technology. Our mindsets have become expanded by the new possibilities of super-connectedness, new models of working, and pervasive data-based insight that today’s networked revolution has wrought.

That’s not to say there aren’t important pros and cons to these advances as well. Along this journey of global, open, and social digital networks, we’ve also encountered enormous challenges in grappling with issues such as individual privacy and equal access, as well as the inherently large inequalities that emerge from the gaps between the digital haves and have-nots. This is precisely because technology is a profound force multiplier of just about everything it touches. There are other potential worries as well.

As The Economist fretted over recently, most technology revolutions have created more employment, not less. We hope that this is true for the next generation, but we’ll see, given how current models show that producer power is generally moving outside of traditional organizations to external networks that have less well-defined employment models:

Everyone should be able to benefit from productivity gains—in that, Keynes was united with his successors. His worry about technological unemployment was mainly a worry about a “temporary phase of maladjustment” as society and the economy adjusted to ever greater levels of productivity. So it could well prove.

Yet to most of us, it’s quite clear that digital channels combined with engagement at scale within them amongst all our stakeholders is at the core of the future of business. But what does this actually mean? What does it look like to most organizations? How can we articulate the changes to structure, process, and management of our organizations in a deeply digital age? It’s my belief we need a comprehensive yet eminently understandable model of how all this reshapes our organizations.

Ecosystem View of the Next Generation Enterprise for 2014: Workforce Community, Customer Community, Partner Community, Market, Social Business

I’ve come to realize we’re trying to hit a fast-moving target with poorly aging models for service delivery and IT governance when it comes to digital transformation. The reality is that it usually takes several years for a large organization to achieve large scale change. By this I mean three to five years, and often more, and that’s just for an individual enterprise-wide initiative.

In today’s operating environment of yearly — sometimes quarterly — waves of highly disruptive enterprise technologies and products, that’s just too long. We need a clearer and more updated sense of where we need to take our organizations, and it must also show us how to increase our technology metabolism as well. This model should include the broad strategic outlines as well as specific adaptations to the latest powerful new digital capabilities such as big data analytics, omnichannel customer engagement, the Internet of Things, social business, and so on. These subjects are all highly strategic to the future of our organizations at the moment, yet they are also interrelated and must fit together relatively well in this model somehow.

Related: Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations

Motivation for an Infinitely Renewing Model of Tech & Business

Over the last few years, I’ve adopted a term known as the next generation enterprise or NGE for short. It’s the idea that we can maintain an up-to-date strategic model when it comes to digital transformation. The vision for the next generation enterprise is different from one year to the next and has specific technological phases as well as overall strategic themes at any given time. This vision has its own management theories as well, such as shifting from organizational hierarchy to networked community or reorganizing how we operate to the three new top-level modes, to name just two examples.

In other words, the idea of the next generation enterprise is a relatively complete view — including both business and technology — of the target that typical organizations should be aiming for in their objectives for digital adaptation and growth. For the moment, let’s put aside whether there even is a typical organization, since many of the most important technology innovations are usually agnostic to your particular industry or unique company attributes. In other words, most major technology advances will derail your boat if you ignore them long enough, no matter what business you’re in.

To give us a shared roadmap and a point of reference, I’d like to start putting a clearer definition behind what we think is meant by a next-generation enterprise. Early this year, I mapped out the most important strategic new enterprise technologies, but it was a purely technology view and included a good many tactical elements that aren’t that important when it comes the big picture.

Instead, I’d like to have a more enterprise-centric view that includes the most important advances in business that technology has directly enabled. Some would say that the advent of being digital connected to every human being on the planet at all times (at least in the developed world) is one of those advances, and I agree. This realization is that communities are moving increasingly to the center of our businesses. But it’s more than that. The enclosing strategic conception is really one of ecosystem, whether that’s inside a segment of the enterprise with a single networked team, an external customer community, or a full-on developer network of thousands of application development partners who have welded your digital supply chain to their apps. All of these are ecosystems that must be created (or identified), grown, cultivated, managed, secured, and governed.

In fact, one of the largest issues we have in digital transformation today is that we look at business in a far too simplistic traditional model. In this legacy view, there are functional silos with workers combined with management hierarchies that together actually make decisions and operate our organizations. Then there are suppliers, business partners, and customers, and that’s about it for the big moving parts.

Baseline for Next Generation Enterprise 2014: Networks, Communities, and Support Programs (Social Media Center of Excellence)Today’s next generation enterprise plays on a much larger and more complex chessboard. There are thousands of relevant ecosystems that now exist for most businesses, most informal, and across thousands more channels, all with a long tail structure.

This means that while the head of the distribution consists of big channels you’ve heard of — from major social networks and call centers to traditional media and Amazon’s cloud — there are thousands you haven’t heard of and will never be able to deliberately consider and plan for. Business architecture has thus moved from simple planned models to complex and highly dynamic emergent networks across every business function we have. We’ve gone from a few dozen groups of stakeholders to ultimately tens of thousands that we must still manage to somehow. Ultimately, our org structures must adapt to reflect this.

I’ve previously proposed a set of enterprise strategies which have a good chance at addressing many of this issues, which were originally brought forth by the channel fragmentation, scale, and decentralization that we saw greatly exacerbated by IT consumerization a couple of years ago. But I now see that bring-your-own-device was just the forefront of a wave of grassroots led network-enabled change, including bring-your-own-application, bring-your-own-community, and soon, even bring-your-own-workforce.

Related: Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

The Element of The Next Generation Enterprise for 2014

So I’d like to put a stake in the ground and define what I think the next generation enterprise for 2014 should look like. There are several views here, but I’ll start with the more business-centric view of ecosystem and expand to other views as I’m able. In this ecosystem view we have the following components:

  • A more network-centric enterprise. Less hierarchical and consisting much more of online communities for achieving cost-effective outcomes at scale. This will happen within and amongst the workforce (network/social collaboration), business partners, customers, and the marketplace. Management and leadership through networks will become an essential skills and will require knowledge of the concepts and operation of digital and social businesses.
  • Workforce communities. While we’ve had a primitive model of team in the legacy workplace, it becomes much more fluid, dynamic, and high scale in the networked world, often directly supported by powerful new collaboration capabilities. Teams-based, project-centric, and — still evolving — process-based work conducted by communities will increasingly become the norm. Why? Because the data has consistently supported that the network/community model provides better business results.
  • Business partner communities. One of the least developed models of networked communities, there are however good examples that can be pointed to. Strategic partners, affiliates, and suppliers can be engaged together in operations, in particular — as John Hagel famously pointed out — with exception handling scenarios.
  • Customer communities. This is one of the strongest and most easily started models for strategic community. The evidence for business value is strong enough that I’ve wondered if the window is already closing on customer communities in certain industries. Certainly in my research I’ve found that customer care communities can reduce costs by 30% in the first year alone over traditional approaches. Social support also at the very top of Ray Wang’s social business use cases.
  • Marketplace. The single most scalable asset that businesses have is networked access to their customers and the broader marketplace. While this constituency also includes regulators and influencers, two groups that can be hard to manage, it also includes online advocates, crowdsourcing participants, software developers, and other interested parties. If you’re surprised to see developers in this list, then don’t be: Developers have become one of the single most important new constituencies as their innovations can drive primary growth and network effects. This is a very different view of business than before, where companies directly engaged their stakeholders.
  • New channels. The next generation enterprise will still have some legacy aspects including physical offices/stores — just smaller and more virtual — it will be the Web and especially on mobile devices that value is primarily created and captured, both. Social business environments (communities of all functional types and audiences) and the application as the new CRM will be key channels here as well. Ultimately, however, APIs — which I define as open digital supply chains — will be the most strategic channel for many industries because it scales faster and creates far more robust outcomes for very little investment.

Using this model, we can also baseline the various states of maturity of each part of the modern enterprise ecosystem for comparison, as in how far along are we? The essential point here with this view of the next-generation enterprise is that it’s the current target model, not what you should look like today. It’s what you should be aiming for, although you should certainly have some elements of it in place today (see figure 2.)

What do you see as other essential views of the next generation enterprise? What else needs to be added?

Related: The Second Wave of the Contemporary Workforce

Shifting the Meaning of Hierarchy to Community

Over the last year or so, a fascinating bow wave of interest has been converging on a growing cadre of companies who appear to be doing something quite novel and seemingly new. Specifically, these organizations have apparently thrown off many of the traditional structures and processes of corporate management. Interestingly, all of these organizations are focusing on change through people first, technology second, if at all.

Though sometimes employing the language of social business, these innovative organizations aren’t just centering their efforts at rethinking their business around digital/social. Instead, they are focused primarily on fundamentally changing their thinking and behavior around work itself. This is something Hugh MacLeod noted last week that is likely to literally become one of the next big industries, albeit in a virtual sense, as we seek en masse to adapt our organizations to much faster rates of change and innovation.

Ironically, as the changes being made aren’t primarily technological but cultural, it’s the organizations which don’t have a strong or healthy culture that are finding that technology revolutions like social media are greatly amplifying their shortcomings in this regard.

Management Hierarchy versus Online Community

Some of the notable exemplars that have been held up as poster children for this trend include Southwest Airlines, W.L. Gore, Valve, Zappos, and Morning Star. All of these firms have realized in some form a contemporary new and self-organizing way of working that pushes action, responsibility, and change directly to the edge of the organization, where workers are essentially free from unnecessary bureaucratic and political constraints to take initiative, make decisions, and act on their insight.

It’s not fully clear yet if we’re seeing the emergence of a broader trend or if these are isolated examples, but the overall success of these organizations is well-established, as most of them are leaders in their industry. Side note: By isolated examples, I mean in the traditional enterprise space. There are countless successful examples in the digital space.

So, as we try to understand these examples, I’ve wondered what is really happening in this new wave of how we manage and structure the traditional organization. Fortunately, I do believe we’ve started to get a good sense of this and it helps us understand how these ideas could possibly work. An important discussion recently of these changes by Steve Denning makes a rather convincing case that hierarchy is not exactly what’s being eliminated in these new models. Instead, hierarchies themselves are shifting from org charts, fixed responsibilities, and formal titles to a more fluid and competency-based model:

Thus I often hear it said, and see it written, that firms […] have done exactly that, i.e. “gotten rid of managers” and “abolished hierarchy.”

This is a misunderstanding. This is not what these organizations are doing or what the ongoing paradigm shift in management is about at all.

In networked organizations, where work is self-managed, there are still managers. The managers have become enablers of self-managing teams and networks rather than controllers of individuals. In those organizations, someone has to sign checks. Someone has to sign legal documents on behalf of the organization. Someone is legally responsible for what is done by the organization. That someone is a manager. A manager after all is simply someone who is responsible for getting things done. If anything is to get done, an organization has to have managers.

There are still hierarchies in a network, but the hierarchies tend to be competence-based hierarchies, relying more on peer accountability than on authority-based accountability, that is, accountability to someone who knows something rather than to someone simply because they occupy a position, regardless of competence. It is a change in the role of the manager, not an abolition of the function.

Based on my work, I think Steve’s analysis is very close, yet not the entire picture. The part that is missing is that indeed there is a broader move in many organizations towards a networked structure, one based on earned, peer recognized competency and manifesting itself in loosely-coupled, dynamically formed, and freely participative teams (pods in Dave Gray’s language.)

It’s a Community, It’s a Networked Hierarchy

However, it’s also becoming increasingly clear to me that the part of this story that is left out here is the very notion of the enterprise itself. Our increasingly antiquated view of companies as self-contained entities with leaders and workers working within rigid and slow-to-change functional silos that are also supposed to provide all the ideas and all the motive force is no longer effective or accurate. In fact, the single most disruptive force shifting hierarchy is the same force that is also expanding the meaning of hierarchy beyond the boundaries of the organization.

This force is community, and by that I generally mean online communities, although their incarnation in the digital is not always required, as we clearly see from the examples above. I’ve long believed that communities are moving to the very center of our organizations — this means operations, structure, and yes, even business model — and it’s really the community model that is being replicated in today’s new corporate hierarchies.

What does this shift mean to businesses, specifically? Functioning organizations will soon rely on, as they already do to hundreds of organizations today, communities that will deliver essential capabilities to the enterprise that used to be intrinsic to self-contained organizations: Marketing, advocacy, pre-sales support, product development, customer care, operations, and other functions. There are excellent examples of community-centric versions of all of these functions happening at scale in traditional enterprises.

So while I do find it quite interesting when we look at new models for recasting the classical notion of the workforce — and look at the classical workforce only — it’s essential that we don’t merely regard the subject through the myopic lens of the old org chart. Instead, we must use the deeper understanding that networked organizations are hybrids that fully merge traditional workforce and online community. Again, the more transformative examples seem to focus on the people more than the technology, though the latter — especially social technologies — does seem vital, as long as it’s not put first.

Implications of Networked Work Hierarchies

The move to networked models of work therefore appears to imply the following:

  • A network of self-interested people organizing dynamically around what needs to be done is more efficient and effective. Forcing work down only through traditional hierarchies produces poorer and much more costly outcomes. This assumes of course, that there are tools, education, and organizational structures to enable the former. Again the evidence is clear that peer production is a richer — if sometimes less predictable — and far more scalable and agile way of working. Therefore:
  • Greater business value is created with least overhead or friction by self-interested and engaged communities. Organizations that try to “do it all” with their own workforce simply cannot compete.
  • The individual/organizational bond is steadily becoming the individual/community/organizational bond. Community is a new emerging construct between our institutions and individuals. Like most major changes to the world, this is neither a complete nor total shift, but a gradual change in the center of gravity. Thanks to Harold Jarche, for a summary of his ideas that helped crystallize this particular insight for me.

Consequently, the enterprises that don’t fully appreciate they are now part of a much larger and richer system-of-systems of people — and redesign themselves around this new reality — will increasingly be at risk. To survive, our organizations must pro-actively seek to efficiently ramp up participation in the richer, shared outcomes that only the productive entanglement with communities — internal and external — can produce.

Finally, if you’re not sure this is a big part of our business future, we have only to look at the mass dislocation that the collaborative economy is producing in so many industries, where communities are at the very center of the business model, to see that this is actually happening today and widely.

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

What is the Future of Work?

Much has been made recently about one of the stand out trends of the times we live in: Everything is becoming infused with technology. Software is eating the world it is said. Some have claimed that next it might even eat the jobs, which to some degree is almost certainly the case. With only a little bit of irony, Hugh MacLeod humorously noted this week that software may eventually eat all the people. But even that could be a bit closer to the truth than some of us might expect.

But the point is this: In the last half-decade alone, most of us would admit the societal and cultural shifts that technology and global digital networks have wrought is nothing short of astounding:

Social media is relentlessly chipping away at the power and control that companies and governments have long enjoyed almost exclusively over the rest of the world. Supply chains, talent management (hiring), customer service, product development, and just about every function of business is being transformed by things like 3D printing, social recruiting, customer care communities, crowdsourcing, to only name a few of the more important examples. That’s not even looking at the macro changes (example: Arab Spring), in which digital/social is impacting the fabric of entire nations. In all of these cases, the power and control is shifting to the other side of the network, to what many now call the ‘edge’, where most of us are.

Unfortunately, there remains a constituency that remains stubbornly in the back of the pack when it comes to the large scale changes happening in the world today. Surprisingly, this constituency formerly used to actually lead the technology world. Instead, it is now dragged along by consumer technology companies and their customers. Yes, I am referring to our corporations, to which I’ll add our institutions, including our governments and associated entities.

Related: Rethinking How We Transform Our Organizations for the Future

The Future of Work, Technology, Business, Culture, and Society

I’ve explored many times in recent years how traditional businesses have essentially lost the leadership mantle when it comes to technology. But finally now there is an increasingly concerted effort to take some of it back, to get back in the game, to use the realization that the methods we’re using in large organizations to apply technology to work is often failing, and badly.

This has led us generally to a broader global discussion on the future of work. With our institutions, expectations, and behaviors undergoing a steadily increasing rate of change, where is all this taking us? What will the workplace of the end of the decade look like and work like? That has been a question that’s been coming up more and more frequently. The answers are often focused purely on the externally obvious — and their easily determined — differences, such as the wide range of disruptive new technologies moving into the workplace today. While the technology is certainly a subject of fascination and I’ve been talking recently to audiences around the world about it, it’s not enough. We must move the conversation up a level and talk about the changes to us, the people that make up our workforces and our customers, and which are taking place as our businesses move deeper towards a very different 21st century model of work.

When then does the the future of work look like? Nobody has the full picture of course, but I am increasingly sure it broadly looks something like this:

The Future of Work: The Key Aspects

  • The evolution of the business/worker compact We are on a trajectory that has taken us well away from lifetime employment, guaranteed pensions, and single careers where largely benevolent, parent-like corporations looked after their workers, to a model where the principle actors, both companies and individuals, are much more autonomous, self-interested, and dynamic. Like all things this has trade-offs, but in the large this directly facilitates more rapid evolution of those involved and potentially creates a richer, more rewarding — if seemingly riskier — work environment for us, especially if we’re self-actualizing. There are other implications as well.
  • CSR/social enterprise and the need for business to go beyond a basic value proposition. It’s not good enough just to sell products and services anymore. Companies and their workers must be thinking about the bigger picture as the marketplace is increasingly demanding that the businesses they work with are concerned about overall global outcomes. Sustainability, environmentalism, corporate social good/responsibility, and other urgent qualitative matters of policy and governance are going to increasingly infuse how we work. Doing this successfully will require a very different mindset in our workforce than our traditional organizations typically have cultivated in the past.
  • New modes of management and workforce collaboration. The management theory — or more likely theories, plural, as there are probably several good ways of thinking about it as I’ve recently explored — for the future of work is starting to emerge. The same with team, department, company-wide, and mass collaboration. Then there is the collaborative economy that is genuinely remaking very concept of how business works for the digital era. Read some of Harold Jarche’s latest musings on work to get a sense of what the mechanics might look like, as well as Stowe Boyd’s recent thoughts on going back to the fundamentals with social business thinking.
  • New transformative workplace technologies. Everything from wearable tech to mind/machine interfaces and increasingly commonplace social business tools are changing how we will work. This will further change expectations and possibilities. I’ve explored the important technologies to watch this year, but there are many others in the wings and they will only come faster and be increasingly impactful. Our businesses are also becoming platforms in every sense of the word, becoming technologies in their own right. As Fred Wilson observed yesterday, it’s increasingly urgent for organizations to find — and become — the next platform.
  • New approaches for addressing diversity and inequality. While still I’m on the fence about the best ways to address these, you can be sure there will be enormous investments made through the rest of the decade by businesses, government, and other institutions to start tackling the structural issues in the global economy. We’ve increasingly learned and come to accept how much they impact business performance and the bottom-line.
  • A shift in the fundamental relationship between workers and business. This can be most clearly seen in the inversion of the traditional model of business, realized directly by the flourishing of vast numbers of self-organizing online communities. Now people can just come together online and create shared value without an intermediate organization that would otherwise have to the resources required to meet their needs. What does this mean for how important the traditional model business and work will be to people? The classical enterprise clearly isn’t as necessary as before for many purpose. Now we need to look ahead and see how these trends will affect how we structure, manage, and operate our organizations.
  • Co-evolutionary changes in society and global/regional culture that impact the workplace. Technology improves what’s possible by dramatically lowering the effort, time, or cost of doing something, or even makes something entirely new possible that was simply impossible before. This sets expectation and enables/encourages new types of behavior in people and society as a whole. These soft changes in us then drive the exploration of new technologies guided by behavior changes and new norms. We need to better understand where this co-evolutionary process is taking us, as well as anticipating how these new directions will impact it will affect our businesses.

Surely, this list is fairly incomplete. Unfortunately, more change is taking place now than we can really individually know (and is one reason why I believe locally autonomous adaptation is essential to the future of work.) Given how disruptive change has been in the last 20 years, remaking industries, creating giant new entities (Internet, Web, and cloud ecosystems like Amazon, Google), and dramatically changing what’s possible, the next-generation of work is likely to be almost radically different, while also being incredibly interesting. It’s worth it for us to find out as much as we can so we can prepare and anticipate the future, with the goal of avoiding unnecessary disruption — preferably being the author of your own disruption — while capturing increasingly historic opportunities.

Additional Reading:

Ten strategies for making the “Big Leap” to next-gen enterprise | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

Does technology improve employee engagement? | ZDNet

Can technology improve business innovation? | ZDNet

Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations

As we’ve watched digital networks reshape just about every aspect of business these days, I’ve found that we’ve struggled to come up with the right words and ways to describe a very different way of working. From vast app stores and pervasive streams of big data to enterprise social networks and customer engagement, the rules that Internet-based models of business impose are often very different.

Yet some well-known elements of business haven’t necessarily changed and have only become more pronounced: For example, scale is one of the single biggest challenges in moving to digital and social business, but has also been a challenge in our globalized world for some time. Today’s pervasive network connectedness is making this factor ever more pronounced. For organizations now this typically means having to maintain tens of thousands, or even millions, of simultaneous conversations with the marketplace for critical activities such as marketing, sales, and customer service. It also means most businesses will have to manage an order of magnitude more suppliers, business partners, and other 3rd party relationships (example: open APIs are a great harbinger of high scale in digital supply chains.)

Thus, the challenges of magnitude infuse everything in digital: Distribution, supply, engagement, control, competition, and even — or perhaps especially — security and sustainability. However, in other areas, especially where digital and social networks fundamentally change the fabric of things, we still don’t have clearly identified constructs, or even good words that we can use.

Digital and Social Business Ecologies: How Workforce and Market Engagement Are Blending

For instance, it’s been abundantly clear for a decade now that open digital communities are a new and revolutionary construct that have gone on to literally change the world. From upending media and software (social media and open source communities, respectively) to remaking the fundamental nature of how business in all industries gets done (collaborative economy), large, self-organizing communities are taking the lead. Digital technology even changes the underlying forces of the age-old concept of community. For example, even though the idea of community has been around since there have been people, the digital incarnation seemingly does something a bit different: Instead of forming insular walls that group people together, digital communities tends to group people together and break the walls down.

It’s here that I think we’re missing the name of a key concept, or at least, we’re not using one that needs to be applied here. Specifically, I believe that the relationship between the traditional enterprise and online communities has been greatly underexplored. For sure, we have many good examples now of enterprise communities that have created results across our value chains today.

But what we don’t have is a good understanding of what relationship communities should have to business at a strategic level. Are communities an adjunct to a specific function under certain conditions, such as customer service communities or product development/innovation communities when existing traditional processes underperform? Are communities to be the primary delivery model, or a secondary? My belief is that this thinking is now too incremental.

Instead, I believe businesses should now focus directly on moving to community-led business structures and processes as a first class citizen. The force multiplier of social technology here has simply proven far too great not to put at the core of our businesses, and not doing so has begun to have significant competitive and sustainability implications.

To get there, we need to talk about digital communities and business in new ways that explain their new relation to the enterprise much better than we do today. I’d like to suggest that as digital business practitioners we starting exploring this landscape in the form of ecologies, when we talk about business and community. Why ecologies? Because of what the term means:

Ecology (from Greek: οἶκος, “house”; -λογία, “study of”) is the study of interactions among individuals and their environment.

Therefore, it behooves us to much better understand — in relation to our stakeholders — the exact nature, interaction, and possibilities of communities and business, a twin environment we’ve not really had before in business as the highest order concepts. The motivation here is that the new fundamental environment for business in the 21st century is the digital network, and specifically, online communities of every description. Given the way they are upending what’s possible in terms of how to achieve just about every function in business, it’s time we capture a more complete conception of their role. I believe this means articulating their centrality to the operating model of many or most activities in the enterprise today.  While that sounds like a bold statement, I believe the results we’ve seen so far (see the nearly 100 case examples we put in Social Business By Design for a small sample) fully bear this out.

As my good friend Stowe Boyd recently wrote [my emphasis]:

We need a CDO-style figure in most businesses — if not the CEO — to make that transition to a postnormal footing, where work technology is at the core of what everyone does, not an afterthought or add-on. The inability of traditional IT to deliver on the promise of today’s technology is the universal business facepalm of our day.

Network technology is dominating the transformation of business today. Now we need to successfully adapt our management theories and practices to this new reality.

Additional Reading:

Digital diaspora in the enterprise: Arrival of the CDO and CCO | ZDNet

What Most Digital Strategy Underestimates: Scale and Interconnected Change | On Web Strategy

A new reality between the CMO and CIO | ZDNet

Enterprises and Ecosystems: Why Digital Natives Are Dethroning The Old Guard | On Web Strategy

Four key takeaways for digital transformation | Econsultancy

How We Gave Up Control Over The Social Web

A short but pithy piece over the weekend by Dave Winer titled “Why the Web 2.0 model is obsolete” got me thinking about where we’ve ended up with social media after nearly ten years. Blogs, wikis, and other tools of easily shared self-expression from the early days have given away in recent years to a much less diverse social media monoculture. A few large social networks now control our social identity, content, and behavior, and through their terms of service, often literally own our online existence legally and de facto.

This evolution was perhaps inevitable given the rules through which networks operate and certainly the result has its strengths. It’s far easier for consumers and businesses to adopt a hosted service than set up their own social presence, with all the complicated bits it requires to set up a fully functional social identity on your own these days. It’s also probably more secure, safe, and reliable long term. It’s certainly the shortest route to connecting with the vast captive audiences that the leading social networks now wield.

Yet in the process of making many short term decisions in the name of reach and convenience, many of us have given away our social capital, and along with it much of our online autonomy and freedom. I’ve long since stopped advising companies to drive their traffic to Facebook (disclaimer: I am a shareholder) and build their own online communities and digital ecosystems if they are intending to be strategic about things like social business and open APIs.

Network Effects, Social Media, and Centralized vs. Federated

The impressive thing is that we’ve largely achieved the original vision of Web 2.0 and it’s just how we do things now. We share by default. We use social media more than any other digital activity. Social media is now woven into so much of what we do today. Yet the majority of all of this user generated content and online community is now centralized in a few large social silos that can no longer talk to each other.

Even worse, if we go the opposite direction that might seem better long term, we’ve discovered issues with that model too. For example, we’ve learned that when we create many smaller, self-controlled, and more autonomous social environments we then create fragmentation. We can’t easily communicate or collaborate with each other across these social islands. Thus, for as many downsides as the monolithic social networks have, they do achieve one important thing: They create a very large single social universe that we can all communicate across.

So what should we collectively do? Should we cave in and trust that the corporate owners of the social world will be benevolent, even when they clearly have business models that are very often at cross purposes to our needs and desires? Or should we find a way to solve the problem of creating our own social corners on the Web and then connecting them together, all while making it very easy to do so? Personally, I’m hoping it’s the latter. Certainly I’ve explored previously how open social standards have a genuine shot at helping with this, even if it might be a bit of a long shot.

The reality is that social media silos are now holding us back, both as individuals and as businesses. We can do much better if we want. But getting there requires a little long-term discipline and plenty of widespread demand. That makes it pretty unlikely in the face of the enormously strong network effects of the largest social networks today. But perhaps there’s a third option to regaining control over our social lives. In fact, I predict the next big breakthrough in social media is likely to come from the need to resolve this tension between the unfortunate long term consequences of centralized social media and the benefits of a much more federated and user controlled model. Unfortunately, recent history has been a steady march towards the former.

So until then, we all need to mull over where our collective decisions are taking us, for as social media is perhaps the greatest communication revolution in history, its intrinsic power cuts both ways.

Imagining the Future of the Enterprise

This afternoon at a workshop in Stuttgart, Germany at the KnowTech conference I explored our latest conception of the many transformative technology changes happening within our organizations today. The majority, if not most of these trends, are now being driven by the so-called “big shifts” — and our response to them as people, organizations, and society — that are largely being imposed from outside the walls of the enterprise. Consumerization is clearly here to stay. This is not to say that businesses aren’t innovating. Certainly they still are. But they are greatly outnumbered and frequently outclassed by the tsunami of new ideas sweeping across us from the consumer world.

The pace of advance today can seem overwhelming. It is new mobile devices, social media, cloud services, avalanches of sensor or crowd-created data, all brought to our doorstep via new digital channels and platforms such as mobile apps, app stores, open APIs, new social networks, gamification tools, to name just a few of the bigger and more disruptive technologies.

To proactively deal with all this, I currently advise most companies to develop a “strategy book” that they can readily use to identify important new advances, understand their abilities and ramifications, and then determine the impact to their business, both in terms of opportunity and challenges. Note: The aforementioned workshops typically provide the basis for such a strategy book and the processes required.

Unfortunately for most companies, there are often more challenges than opportunities, since many of these new technologies go against the grain of how traditional companies are structured and operate. Openness, decentralized processes, mass participation, network effects, and radically new distribution models for communication and work are not merely typical of today’s consumer technologies, it’s how they fundamentally work and compete against each other.

Put simply, to survive these generational shifts, organizations must figure out how to absorb new technology changes effectively and at scale. This will require potent strategies that will begin with requiring genuine rethinking of service delivery within our organizations and ultimately arrive at a profound transformation of the company. This will ultimately include its business models, motivations, and sometimes even its reasons for being. One can look at Amazon as an exemplar of this, starting out in e-commerce, and ending up a true and surprisingly pure digital platforms company, successfully wielding mobile, platforms, cloud, and big data to achieve market domination. Amazon is the most well known, but there are others and the route is repeatable, just as it is sometimes difficult.

The end point of all this is where everything is a service, as Dave Gray famously predicted. But also it’s more than that. The future of the enterprise, what I’m calling the next-generation enterprise, requires a mindset that doesn’t think in terms of fixed markets or point products or services. Instead, we must create, cultivate, and control fast-moving and highly competitive ecosystems of people, information, and value across a virtually unlimited number of channels. Those who can move first, co-create, and own the best class of information and then deliver it in forms the market wants, when it wants it, will be the winners in the short-term and long-term. Companies organized to do any less than this will falter and fade.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and exploring how organizations can get there. There’s still a lot we need to learn, but we’re beginning to see the broad outlines. Unfortunately, there still more questions than answers, even today. Can most organizations make the transition? Does the transition to a next-generation enterprise have multiple routes, if so, what are they? How much investment is required and what is the likelihood of failure? Can we quantify and manage the risk of transforming? All of these questions and more remain difficult to answer.

Related: How Digital Business Will Evolve in 2012: 6 Big Ideas

However, we do know with a fair degree of certainty that most large organizations will need to begin changing faster — starting now — if they intend to survive. Most will need to become next-generation enterprises in a meaningful way within the next half-decade. And they need to have started several years ago.

As we enter the age of digital engagement, the untapped possibilities still largely exist. Most organizations should be utterly thrilled by the uncharted territories in front of them. Unfortunately, I see that most do not even see these as more than a threat, if they see them at all. That then is the first challenge: Changing how we regard our connection and relation to the world, for the biggest changes happening today are not only digital, but to ourselves and what makes our companies work.

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