What We Know About Making Enterprise Social Networks Successful Today

It’s a little hard to believe that it’s been over ten years now since the first early enterprise social networks (ESN) emerged on the market to make their initial forays into our organizations. They showed us then — and I believe even more now today — the bright new possibilities for how we might work together in more innovative and effective ways by becoming fundamentally better connected organizations.

We’ve certainly learned a great deal along the way through thousands of ESN deployments around the world since that time. I have tracked or been involved in a good many of these types of efforts over the years, and so I thought I’d revisit what I believe that we’ve learned so far from the more successful efforts. Sharing this knowledge is vital now, as I still see many practitioners starting almost from scratch. That’s because there is still no single source of knowledge on what works best when it comes to being successful in crafting a next-generation digital workplace with an ESN.

Note: We do have a useful body of industry knowledge now, but it’s currently spread out and must be put together to create a fully integrated picture. The three sources I that think are the most valuable currently are a) the Community Roundtable‘s annual State of the Community Management report, the latest edition of which I explored on ZDNet a little while back, b) Jane McConnell’s excellent Organization in the Digital Age report, and lastly, c) Vanessa Dimauro’s various work at Leader Networks, such as her new Business Impact of Communities report.

Making an Enterprise Social Network Thrive

Looking in the ESN Mirror: Far Too Much Attention on the Tools

Early makers of enterprise social networks such as Jive, Newsgator, and Socialtext blazed the trail initially, making it possible for workers to engage in truly open and self-organizing collaboration by adapting the social networking model that had worked so well in the consumer world to the enterprise. In particular, these early offerings were based on the early successes of consumer social media and social networking, namely services like Facebook and MySpace, as well highly successful online communities for business like the SAP Community Network. While wikis and blogs were the first genuine contemporary social software used in businesses (groupware, and arguably e-mail were actually the very first social tools), it was the social networking model that ultimately became the leading one.

Eventually, the hard knocks of marketplace competition ultimately led to the domination of the top part of the industry by a few players that executed well: IBM (with Connections and a host of associated platforms), Microsoft (with Yammer, Sharepoint, and now Groups, and probably Teams as well), Salesforce (with Chatter/Community Cloud), and finally Jive as the only truly dedicated enterprise player still standing from the inception of the industry.

But as useful as these platforms were and are in helping enable the right changes in digital workplace mindset and behavior, it was never the technology that was the hardest part. In fact, one of the clearest lessons from the first decade of the rise of the ESN was that virtually all of the major challenges with ESN success are about people, not technology. Making enterprise social networks thrive by fostering stronger, richer connections across organization silos while spurring widespread knowledge sharing and co-creation is an activity that is almost entirely made successful by how you situate the tools among the people involved, what skills you develop amongst them, and the type of goals, encouragement, support, and leadership you establish.

Thus, in the realm of digital collaboration, people come first and technology is second. In fact, I’ve often argued that organizations can actually become effective social businesses without any additional technology at all, like W.L. Gore (10,000 employees, $3.2B revenue) with its famously flat, open and self-organizing culture which was a social businesses long before the technology arrived. (They have since adopted the ESNs as one of their core tools.)

A Signature Lesson: People Must Change with the Tech, So Guide Them

I’d even go as far as to say this (to borrow a concept from the Internet of Things): The enterprise social network actually creates a side-by-side virtual “twin” of your organization, one that is more natural, organic, collaborative, scalable, and self-organizing. The digital twin represented by your ESN must therefore be nurtured in the same way as your business is (because it is the business too.)

Just like you’d never let your organization operate without a well-articulated vision, a relentless focus on growth and development, regular investment in better performance, careful strategic oversight, and passionate involvement by leadership as well as the rank and file, your ESN can’t lack for these elements either.

Thus, here’s the short list of the top factors I now believe drive success with enterprise social networks today. By and large, these factors are not technological in nature, though they often are highly reflective of — and can be directly aided by — the technology environment in which they operate. Instead these success factors represent the foundational types of human activities and skills that helps organizations more readily tap into the increasingly well understood benefits of operating as a social business. Lack more than a couple of these factors, and your ESN isn’t likely to be much of an improvement over say, an e-mail or unified communications system, in terms of the truly differentiated impact it can have.

The Hard Won Lessons of Thriving ESNs

  • Purposeful use case design. Unlike generic communications systems, enterprise social networks perform at their best when they’re designed around specific business activities. While having user profiles, activity streams, groups, and posts at a basic level is useful in itself — and that’s what ESN platforms offer out of the box — it’s designing for specific use cases like budgeting, recruiting, supply chain exception management, and dozens of other key activities where the real business value and impact comes in. For example, I am seeing a strong push in many ESN efforts this year to help teams collaborate more effectively in the field, particularly with sales teams, as that function matters a great deal to most businesses and is one of the best ways to demonstrate value early on. But the user experience of the ESN must be extended to natively support these use cases and make them better. This generally means bespoke experiences that extend and expand the ESN to realize the highest value use cases in an optimized way, instead of hoping that generic, out-of-the-box ESN functions will somehow enable them. While most ESN platforms have tools and APIs that make this relatively straightforward, I find that most practitioners expect that their ESN will do most of what is needed out of the box.

    This is simply not the case today. In fact, some of the most compelling examples of ESN solutions are found when specific high impact use cases are enabled through purposeful design, such as with custom-designed Plus Relocation’s Elo community, which lies at the very core of how they run their business, or the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Bridge platform, which greatly accelerates the admission process via a carefully designed and gameified experience. All of this began to be understood back in 2011 when a widely discussed post by Laurie Buczek noted from her efforts at Intel were far too disconnected from the actual work of the business to matter very much. Well-known analysts in the ESN space such as Constellation’s Alan Lepofsky identified purposeful collaboration as a key success factor back in 2013. Attached below are a sample of the some of the functional use cases that enterprise social networks can be dramatically improved through open collaboration, which I’ll be exploring in more detail soon:
    enterprise_social_networks_business_use_cases_for_social_business

  • Professional community management. I am sometimes surprised how often I still encounter a poor appreciation of the vital importance of capable community management — see TheCR’s skill wheel to understand how involved a job it is — in ensuring the long-term growth and success of an ESN. Last year I even wrote an open letter, aimed at the IT department which often does the technology implementation for an ESN (and gets charged about half the time with actually operating it), about the criticality of developing this strategic social business capability. Short version: Digital communities are a new type of entity requiring a new form of support and enablement. Do not use interns for this, don’t use the inexperienced, don’t add it to someone’s already busy day job. Instead, use experienced professionals, like you would with any other important business function. Outsource if you have to (what I call Community Management as a Service.) Invest early and plan for the long hual as the Community Roundtable has correlated it directly with the maturity level of an ESN effort.
  • Working out loud. Of all the digital skills that workers should be developing now, perhaps the one that most naturally is an onramp to most of the others and leads to both positive outcomes and compelling emergent results is the act of working out loud (WOL) in digital channels. John Stepper’s Working Out Loud book and his push for organizations to create WOL circles to build skills around the technique is probably the best place to start. My industry colleague Michelle Ockers recently posted some fascinating insights into how WOL can work with actual results from a large organization. In short, working out loud will develop vital network leadership skills, cultivate social capital, and produce higher level of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and institutional knowledge, to name just a few of the benefits by virtue of simple and straightforward daily activities in the ESN.
    Working Out Loud Fundamentals for an Enterprise Social Network
  • Network leadership. As organizations become more virtual, decentralized, and digitally-enabled, it will be in social tools that leadership will soon be wielded most effectively. Managing our organizations through digital networks has become an essential skill, just not one that we’re training for in most organizations yet, and now we must. The majority of ESN deployments spend very little time developing these skills or educating team leaders, managers, and executives in the basic skills of network leadership, yet are often surprised when highly meaningful and impactful activity to the organization doesn’t take place there.
  • Digital collaboration skill development. In general, organizations are not developing the human skills as much as they are developing their digital workplace technologies. Almost every ESN effort I have encountered is under-delivering in some way on building the new skills required to get the most from social collaboration, as it depends on very different thinking such as letting the network do the work and designing your work processes for loss of control. These needn’t be — and shouldn’t be — complex digital skill education programs. Collaborate with your learning and development team and build some lightweight digital collaboration skill development content (videos, quick starts), add ESN education to new hire onboarding, cultivate WOL circles, and then evangelize and educate at every opportunity across the organization.
  • Supportive and engaged senior stakeholders. Perhaps the fastest and most effective way to get traction and sustain success with an ESN is to have active and fully participative leadership. This means both support and sponsorship as well as active presence in the enterprise social network itself. One of the first thing ESN practitioners should focus on is landing at least two senior executives willing to lend their reputation and standing in the organization to the effort. How important is this really? In the Community Roundtable’s survey data, year-after-year, it generally comes in as a top two factor, so it’s high on the importance scale.
  • Guardrails on activities that impede being a connected company. There are some easy ways that organizations can inadvertently reduce the benefits of social collaboration. One of the top ones is making it too easy to create private groups in the ESN. This is easy to remedy, if you’re aware of it: Leading social business exemplars like Bosch require users to submit a business case for private groups as a “tax” to place friction on keeping information hidden. Not retiring aging digital channels that are less open and participative can also be factor, as workers will initially tend to gravitate back to the tools and channels they know. In general, be diligent in not breaking FLATNESSES, which is a more detailed mnemonic I adapted from Andrew McAfee’s initial SLATES mnemonic describing what makes social tools different and more powerful than what came before.

ESNs are about people + digital technology: Focus in that order

Are there other success factors? Sure, and they vary widely depending on the organization, its culture, inclinations, and level of digital competency. If you want a deeper drive, I previously explored in detail, by pulling from several dozen client studies and industry case examples, what early adoption success patterns for ESNs were, since that phase was what most organizations were focused on then. We’ve learned some additional lessons since then — most of which are summarized above — but it’s still a useful breakdown if you need more techniques to drive success.

Does all of this sound overly complex? Not really. Social technologies themselves are getting very good at making the fundamentals easier, while there is a growing body of knowledge that can be used as a template for the structures and processes one needs to put into place. I’ve previous explored the structure side several times, both in terms of specific roles and organizational capability, while the process side is well-depicted in aforementioned community manager skill wheel.

In short, never before has it been easier to adopt enterprise social networks and achieve significant impact. It just takes a focus on what matters most, which is a steady choreography that consists of shifting human skills and supporting collaboration technologies together towards business goals. I now believe that most organization can get to ESN success quickly and repeatably, but only if they assess and adequately address the full dimension of people and technology concerns required.

Additional Reading

How Social Technology has Emerged as an Enterprise Management Model

Can we achieve a better, more effective digital workplace?

Using Online Community for Digital Transformation

Driving successful change in a large organization has always been one of the most difficult activities in business. But for those who are principally tasked with carrying their organizations forward into the digital future, they are currently facing perhaps the single most challenging large-scale enterprise activity of our time. One has only to look at the short-list of needed technology adaptations to recognize the true extent of the challenge.

Part of this is because digital itself is so intangible. It’s hard to understand all the moving parts of the vast technology stacks, ecosystems, and platforms that now surround us because it’s hard to discern them. It’s often even harder to understand the diverse needs, perspectives, and skill gaps of the people that have to change along with the technology.

Thus the popular topic of digital transformation has come full circle back to the change process itself, largely because we’ve found our existing toolkit to be entirely unsatisfactory. For example, we already know that the vast majority of strategic change initiatives employing traditional methods don’t succeed. We also have an increasingly good sense of why this is, and a big part of the reason is that centralized processes break in exponential times (see Martec’s Law.) They quickly become overwhelmed by the scale and dynamics of the necessary change processes, which have to keep adapting and updating themselves in near real-time to stay relevant, often in windows that are hardly more than weeks today.

Enabling Digital Transformation at Scale with Online Community

Consequently, we’ve seen steadily emerging models for change that go well beyond the strategic initiative, the center of excellence, or incubator to push out change into a much broader set of minds and hands, far beyond what we’ve normally employed to drive change previously. I now believe that unless organizations greatly expand the notion of who is involved in change, who can drive it, and how they are enabled, empowered, and supported, they will largely underperform with digital transformation.

To determine how scalable digital change can best be realized and figure out what kind of forward-thinking constructs will be required, I’ve been experimenting for the last several years with employing the very same models that we use to engage in the digital world, to cultivate and foster more dynamic change processes. The ideas of social business and online community, which show how the most scalable, cost-effective, and rich model for working is to enable the network to do the work. I’ve now come to understand that in digital transformation, we have to let the network do the work. Put simply, there is no practical way to achieve the pace and breadth of transformation required in exponential times without using exponential tools.

In the last few years, I’ve been using online community as the platform for change, instead of creating traditional centrally-staffed change programs, and found it far more effective in general. I am not the only one that believes this is a key path forward towards new types of highly potent change models. This is an industry-wide discovery and conversation we are beginning to see emerge in general. We have moved beyond the center of excellence model, which we’ve learned soon bogs down and largely fails to address the scope of enterprise-wide change activities, to a new model I’ve called the network of excellence, for lack of a better term.

Realizing that we need to scale change on a platform

I’m not alone in thinking along these lines. For example, well-known management thinker Gary Hamel has been promulgating this very same idea, entirely independently. My industry colleague John Hagel has also been writing about many related concepts, most recently about how we can scale learning in an exponential world. The highly regarded CIO of the Federal Communications Commission, David Bray, spends a tremendous amount of his energy using social media and other channels to talk about how to broadly enable digital change agents and “intrapreneurs.” There are still others exploring this topic as well.

The subject of learning in particular is a vital one to this conversation. That’s because unless we’re prepared to radically restaff our organizations, mass education for the digital era is required to help our organizations as a whole shift our thinking, behavior, and culture. Great communication is essential also, as we’re learning it is the leading success factor in driving effective change. Both of these activities are best realized using today’s modern digital communications and collaboration tools designed for very high scale, leverage, and asynchronicity: Online communities and enterprise social networks.

While I’ve been “experimenting” with new open methods with real transformation efforts in enterprises to the extent I can the last few years, an emerging model for how to structure and wield online communities to drive these kinds of change has begun to present itself. Far from being a proprietary new way of driving large scale change, I now see that this model, and similar ones like it, are the inevitable direction that change will take.

In the very same way that open source software communities eventually transformed how most software was developed and social media revolutionized how most media content was created, and we see the same advances in crowdfunding and other crowdsourcing methods, the very same shift is now happening to our organizations’ change processes. They are becoming more decentralized, more empowering, diverse, and resource rich by using digital connections to enable wide-scale learning, alignment, communications, and execution around a change process. They are even allowing local actors — and often now even external agents (see open APIs, developer networks, hackathons, startup partnerships, etc.) — to pick up the tools, processes, and lessons learned to change their part of the organization.

Early lessons in using online community for digital change

While the methods and approach we are using to connect together change agents in a community to organize around and realize strategic change are very much still emerging, I can say from experience now that the following is generally required:

  • A community platform. This is a digital forum within which digital change agents will collaborate on and effect change, formulating plans, making joint decisions, and carrying out their efforts, often in very self-organized ways.
  • Facilitation. This is by applying what industry colleagues like Rich Millington refer to as strategic community management, actively facilitating the change process, ensuring those who get stuck get the help they need, and empowering, educating, and orchestrating many points of top-down and bottom-up change across the community, and therefore across the organization.
  • Learning. The community as a whole becomes a massive learning repository, a sort of self-documenting and emergent MOOC for digital transformation adapted to the organization, with lessons learned and best practices culled by facilitators and spread to change agents.
  • Empowerment. A community of transformation spreads knowledge, resources, know-how, and collective energy, enabled by sponsorship, capabilities, staff, and a mandate from the highest levels of the organization.
  • Communications. With rapid change comes an absolute requirement for transparency and clear, open communication. These traits are the natural attributes of an online community, as everyone can see what’s happening and why. As I cited above, this is the top factor for successful transformation.
  • Co-creation. The strongest, swiftest change happens is when there is alignment locally and globally on what needs to be done. Then everyone comes together to put together their ideas and resources to drive digital change.

I invite you to collaborate with me as the digital transformation world begins to adopt the same digital forces of open participation that have remade many industries now, and apply them deeply to our practices and frameworks. For just as the old, plodding, limited, and bandwidth-starved methods of central production are no match whatsoever for today’s methods of digital peer production, failure to adapt has very significant competitive and existential consequences. In short, online community is one of the most powerful methods for achieving almost any large-scale human endeavor, and so I’m pleased to see it arrive to help with digital change.

Can most organizations achieve this? Well, we do know that organizations can’t change unless their leaders change with them, so I do hope so.

Postscript: I’d be remiss in not citing Don Tapscott’s excellent work in identifying and promulgating Global Solution Networks as perhaps the most strategic form of using community to drive large scale learning and change at an intra-institutional, consortia, industry, government, and NGO level.

Additional Reading

A change platform is a priority of the CIO in 2016

Going Beyond ‘Bolt-On’ Digital Transformation

Is it IT’s last chance to lead digital transformation?

In Digital Transformation, Culture Change Goes Hand in Hand with Tech Change

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years identifying the best approaches for that urgent enterprise topic of our time, digital transformation. When I first started, I often looked to top examples of organizations that have started the transition and made good progress (see sample case studies below.) More recently I’ve derived insights from my work directly with a number of organizations on their individual transformation journeys.

Ultimately, however, I have determined that the short answer is one that you might expect: There is no single blueprint for transformation that works well for everyone.

Instead, the right steps very much depend on the organization itself. We also know now that there are indeed common success factors we can apply, if we can adapt them to our organizations. Generally, I’ve found that the best method is to employ heuristics on an established framework that takes an organization’s industry traits, cultural inclinations, organizational strengths/weaknesses and uses a generative process to create a starting point for change.

The resulting adapted framework is informed by best practices and industry lessons learned so far. A good place to start for these is Perry Hewitt’s 10 best practices for digital transformation, which she developed when she was Chief Digital Officer at Harvard.

The framework is balanced so it does not focus too much on technology or change management. In fact, the starting point must be one that steadily shifts both the technology foundation and the people of the organization in unison towards both planned goals and emergent opportunities. This starting point then continues to evolve as the organization learns from early experience. The overall process usually works best when realized on a supporting platform that enables open communication, enterprise-wide learning, digital channel leadership, stakeholder empowerment, and enablement of a network of change agents across the organization. This is the change platform I’ve been discussing in the industry lately, and is typically an online and offline community of practice.

The Stages of Culture Change for Digital Transformation

Rapid, Sustainable Digital Change Requires a Platform

Having an effective change platform is critical, as it’s the people side of digital transformation that is the hardest part by far, which we can clearly see from a great set of recent data by Jane McConnell. Far and away the most significant challenge is getting the organization to collaborate across functions and silos, given disparate priorities, timelines, and lack of mutual familiarity. Without this, fragmented results and disjointed digital experiences are too often the outcome. It’s only by having a common and participatory venue to discuss, plan, and execute that effective transformation can take place. Thus, as Ron Miller has noted: Digital transformation takes true organization-wide commitment.

I typically employ a cultural change map — generically presented above, but adapted to the specific organization — to communicate some of the key aspects of mindset that has to shift to support digital transformation efforts.

The digital transformation effort then uses strategic education, mentoring, and specific activities (these might be hackathons, MOOCs, certification efforts, reverse mentoring, and #changeagents outreach) to proactively shift mindset across the organization and build the requisite digital skills and ideas. These include counter-intuitive notions that can be hard to otherwise learn: Designing advantageously for loss of control and using the intrinsic strengths of digital technology to change more rapidly and scale out faster.

As the organization comes together and engages together on the change platform, it then generates the framework to identify their starting point and guide the ongoing process using rigorous measurement and action-taking, which are two other key success factors, though proactive communication remains the most important action to take (again, why the change platform is so critical).

An Adaptable Framework for Digital Transformation

Communication isn’t sufficient by itself however. Effective action is required. The digital transformation framework above is therefore also very focused on day-to-day operations supported by an ongoing redesign of core business processes that is adjusted continously through early data from careful measurement of early prototypes and pilots. Of course, there are more details involved, but this is the high-level process that I’ve both used and seen work at large organizations to close the execution gap and create sustained and successful transformation.

Leading digital transformation case studies

Burberry’s All Encompassing Approach to Digital Transformation

Travelex and Their Digital Transformation: Communicate, communicate, communicate

How Nordstrom executed cross-silo digital transformation for the long haul

How Tesco used a diverse “community of colleagues” to drive digital transformation

Additional Reading

The Building Blocks of Digital Transformation

What Organizations Should Do in the First 100 Days of Digital Transformation

New Methods Leaders Can Use to Drive Digital Transformation

The Building Blocks of Digital Transformation: Community, Tech, Business Models, and a Change Platform

I’ve been making the argument lately that the single largest obstacle in successful digital transformation is change itself. Surprisingly, the arrival of new technology is generally not the large hurdle to becoming more digital in a meaningful way, though it certainly represents a large and growing learning curve. Yet learning the new technology is manageable by most organizations in my experience, if they have the will to do so.

Finding the right business models can be a bit more of a challenge, but the process of discovering the best ones is increasingly well understood these days. One somewhat ironic lesson is that we’ve also learned that we usually have to build an audience first, often well before we decide on new digital business models, that are centered around some activity or capability of significant shared interest with the market, before we can experiment and find the right path forward in terms of generating value, such as revenue from sales, subscriptions, advertising, etc.

Online Communities Are the Business Construct That Create the Most Value

From my Enterprise Digital Summit 2016 Paris Keynote Deck

Why Digital Needs a New Mindset

It actually turns out the most important and challenging building blocks for digital transformation is people and the processes that can change them. Thinking in digital terms requires a significant shift in mindset, such as designing for loss of control, understanding the power laws of mass connectedness, the startling revelation that the network will do most of the work, and understanding how open participation is the key to unleashing digital value in scale to our businesses.

However, shifting the mindset en masse of the large number people that exist in the average enterprise (i.e. tens or even hundreds of thousands of workers) is not something that can be done to them, but can only be done with them as Euan Semple frequently likes to point out. So, what’s the single best venue in which to engage significantly in a time efficient and sustainable fashion? I now suggest that the most likely and cost-effective vehicle for this that we know today is online community.

The building blocks of digital transformation is a topic that I recently had time to study in depth as I prepared my closing keynote for the always terrific Enterprise Digital Summit 2016 (formerly the Enterprise 2.0 SUMMIT) in Paris this month.

Step 1: Gather Stakeholders into Communities of Digital Change

The fundamental building block of digital transformation is therefore not technology, but people, a much more challenging proposition. However, if we can somehow connect the collective workforce in the organization together in an effective fashsion to begin a shared and dialogue-based process of learning, understanding, experimenting with, and then carrying out the tasks of digital transformation across the enterprise as a much more aligned and self-supporting way, then we are much more likely to succeed. As I’ve discussed, we’ve even started to witness evidence that IT is shifting in this direction steadily, with the rise of empowered change agents and even unexpected source of pre-existing tech change using forces like shadow IT as a key resource for creating decentralized technology adaptation across the organization.

But it all starts with community, for which I believe the evidence is now clear is the most powerful way of organizing human activity and creating shared value yet developed.

Step 2: Assemble a Modern, Market-Facing Technology Stack

From there, we do need to look at the technology lens at what our business does and how it does it. We can no longer realize all tech change ourselves, as our competitors have already learned that the single greatest force for value creation is capturing and wielding community contributions of customers by the millions via mass co-creation, and business partners by the thousands (see APIs + hackathons). I recently summarized the many other emerging enterprise technologies we must consider all the time as well, but the most important ones are customer facing and involved in co-creation.

We therefore must instead now becoming highly competent in building strong and effective architectures of participation, as most digital leaders harness the vast capacity of the Internet to do most of the value creation:

The Digital Business Stack: Marketplace Driven Engagement & Value Creation

Step 3: Create and Nurture Digital Experiments

From there we can combine people-led digital change at scale with a portfolio of digital engagement and experience technologies and processes — that must prominently include market-facing community — to begin creating, launching, and growing healthy and vibrant new products and services. Growing hacking in fact, has become an important new technique used by top Internet companies to ensure early lift and adoption, and has been a key subject of interest by top technology leaders like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. So grow the results of digital transformation this way, then generate revenue:

Digitally Transforming a Business with Growth Hacking, Business Models, and Community

Step 4: Get Serious About Revenue Models

Finally, the last building block is digital business models, which one the service has a successful audience or community, can be experimented with and validated, though certainly some services, such as sharing economy ones, can monetize from the outset, though often at break even levels. Below is a representative list of some of the most common Internet business models, though by no means all the possibilities. For example, there are at least 18 separate known business models for open APIs alone. The high level Internet business models break down like so:

Common Internet Business Models

For a more complete exploration, please view the video of my closing keynote on this subject in Paris on June 2nd, 2016:

Or download a copy of the Slideshare deck that I presented with.

Additional Reading

How IT Can Change For the Digital Era and What Leaders Can Do About It

The digital transformation conversation shifts to how

More Evidence Online Community is Central to the Future of Work

Within the last month, two new industry reports have been released that shed important new light on how we’re going to be organizing and operating our organizations in the coming years. Many of you know my point of view in this regard: Social technology has at this point largely transformed the consumer world, yet the increasingly outdated digital landscape of business frequently continues to rely on creaky and rather limited technologies such as e-mail, document repositories, intranets, file sharing, and so on. So it’s always instructive to see how far we’ve actually come in places, and how much we have left to go.

The first report is The Community Roundtable’s excellent annual State of Community Management for 2016. While I’ll provide a fuller write-up on ZDNet soon, it’s clear from this report that the model of online community continues to rise in prominence and attention as a superior operating model for activities that involve a large number of people that have common interests and need to work together on shared objectives.

As my industry colleague Alan Lepofsky likes to say, without aiming our new digital technologies and cultures purposefully, there is little point.

Key Aspect of the Future of Work: Online Communities Aimed at Shared Purpose

Particularly significant in the report was this year’s exploration on the oft-discussed and little resolved issues of calculating hard return-on-investment (ROI) for community. While in my experience online community is a far superior — albeit still emerging — new way of working for a wide variety of use cases than traditional methods, both internal and externally facing, The Community Roundtable tackled the issue head on in this year’s report to determine ROI from this year’s participants in the survey:

While there is a wide range and many communities do have negative ROI rates that are likely due to their young age, small size or immaturity, many more demonstrate compelling returns that should satisfy stakeholders.

Successful internal communities are more valuable, on average, than their external facing peers and those community programs that addressed both audiences had an ROI in the middle. Overall, communities average an annual ROI of 942% – suggesting that most community managers have nothing to fear from calculating their community’s ROI – remembering that it is the start of an ongoing dialog about value and how to grow it.

The numbers overall are impressive, and shows what I’ve seen consistently: The return on community is not only enough to justify the initial investment and is superior to most competing methods, but is also more than enough to properly fund the ongoing effort with a properly sized team. This especially means dedicated, professional community managers, which are perhaps the top success factor for communities, yet too often neglected in my experience. In short, we can now quantify how online communities and enterprise social networks offer significant value to the typical business. In any case, the numbers make the case on their own:

The ROI of Online Community by Use Case

From here we can see from the data, which Rachael Happe indicated to me recently in a discussion was from their largest sample size yet, is there is serious, immediate, and significant value in both internal and external communities. This continues to validate why online community should be a central plank of your digital strategy, and a core component of your digital transformation efforts.

Also, it’s worth noting that online community is also a key platform for enabling digital transformation, a key topic that came up last week in Paris by many practitioners at the Enterprise Digital SUMMIT, where I was speaking. I’ll explore that issue in more depth as well soon.

The value of social in the back office

The second report is “How social tools can reshape the organization” from the McKinsey Global Institute. Authored by well-known McKinsey partner Michael Chui — whom I finally got to meet recently in New Orleans at the Enterprise150 event — and several co-authors, the report delves into some recent findings on business impact with community and social tools that is worth exploring.

Social Tools and Community Enable Digitization and Performance

Particularly notable was the report’s finding that for any business activity which has been digitized, on average half report that incorporating social improves the digitized process even more, whatever the process. What’s more, specific business activities show a much higher level of improvement if they are digitized and made social, both (see chart above.) These activities include order-to-cash, demand planning, research & development (R&D), supply chain management, and procurement. These aren’t necessary glamorous aspects of our business, like marketing or sales, which are more often associated with social business performance but they are vital and important:

To digitize all processes, both internal and external, the results suggest that social tools can help. For every process where their companies are digitizing and using social tools, respondents agree that social technologies have enabled their use of digital overall. This is true even for the back-office processes where few respondents now say their companies are using social tools. In fact, social’s effect on digitization is greatest for the internal processes where social tools and digital activities are least common.

This data clearly shows that many efforts could be seeking higher levels of easily accessed value in places other than where we’ve traditionally focused. This also means that if you’re already digitizing something, it makes sense to make it social too.

Additional Reading: Enterprises need a (social) platform to drive change

In short, the case of online community is now stronger than ever: More data is available than ever before which shows substantial, sustained, and transformative value can be created by working in more open and highly participative models, as long as we’re sure to connect our activities to purpose. One of the things that struck me most in Paris last week is how many use cases that the latest case studies cite, far beyond simple knowledge sharing and management that used to be the central business case. It’s very encouraging to see our industry reach a new level of maturity and data-based value, though to be sure, there is still much more to do in most organizations.

How Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence Are Evolving the Digital/Social Experience

Digital engagement is once again shifting, as we can see from the main discussions at Facebook’s F8 conference this week about the new release of Messenger and its smart chatbots, or when we look at what’s happening with popular team messaging services like Slack, which is being “overrun by friendly, wonderful bots.” While bots seem like a minor improvement to digital user experience, some believe — including myself — that a combination of today’s latest technologies will transform this what’s-old-is-new-again technology into a major new force in contemporary digital experience and social engagement.

Over the last couple of years, conversing in everyday language with our digital devices has become relatively commonplace with the advent of widely used digital concierge services like Siri, Google Now, and Amazon Echo. Known more formally as ‘conversational user experiences (UXs)’, this dialogue-based interaction model actually has quite a long history going way back to command-line programs like Eliza and Zork (both of which yours truly spent far too much time with when younger), the first commercial expert systems in the 1980s, IRC bots, and other early examples.

Anatomy of a Chat: How Conversational UXs Add Value

While there’s always been an assumption that bots had a bit code behind them with a little situated intelligence — from performing simple services like scheduling reminders via IM all the way up to the first textual AI-based systems such as MYCIN for helping doctors diagnose infections — most conversational interfaces tend to be relatively simple affairs with a little bit of basic natural language processing connected to a decision tree.

That’s clearly about to change in a major way as the introduction of more powerful forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning are combined with new UX channels like voice, video, virtual reality (and soon enough brain/machine) into solutions designed to assist people in their daily activities. These bots will ultimately be unleashed on a) all of the visible digital data in existence, b) apply vast computing power and cutting-edge algorithms to make sense of it all, and c) provide the ability to use this knowledge to converse with us about the world in a deeply meaningful way.

Siri on Apple devices, the conversational UX I use most, has been able to handle increasingly complex and useful queries over the years, often aided by deep smarts from 3rd party services like Wolfram Alpha. Siri is a good example of the overall progress of general purpose chatbots, but it — and the others like it — are really just the tip of the iceberg. I predict you’ll see chatbots appear in almost every user interface in the near future as a way to almost completely remove the friction between our computing systems and us.

How Chatbots Will Impact Online Community

How will the rise of chatbots with AI affect the most important new digital environments for our organizations, online communities and enterprise social networks? I wondered this recently, in particular how it might affect the highly strategic and valuable role of community management. To explore this more, I posed this question yesterday on Twitter to a couple of top colleagues in the space, Rachel Happe and Carrie Basham-Young, with Constellation’s Alan Lepofsky joining in:

Chatbots for Community Management: A Twitter Conversation with Rachel Happe, Alan Lepovsky, and Carrie Basham Young

Why would chatbots help with digital leadership roles like community management? By being connected to the global activity stream and then assisting in the most fundamental — and therefore most common — community management scenarios. This would offload a very overworked role to handle routine digital enablement like helping users through common issues, basic community skill building, ensuring a basic SLA for questions and answers, and providing coaching to community/ESN users on the fly. Other likely scenarios include capturing community data and reporting on it and providing a queryable interface on community needs, hotspots, and quiet zones to improve social business adoption and drive business performance. Chatbots in this space have great potential in my opinion and we’ll soon see them more and more in the social business world.

How Chatbots and Artificial Intelligence could Help Community Managers

But are chatbots for community management — and other domains of digital engagement — really going to happen? I’d argue that since they already are in many other similar functions, such as Web site sales and support, that it’s almost certain, as a greater share of conversation shifts from human-to-human (H2H) to human-to-machine(H2M.) In fact, an employee from Cognizant even chimed into the above Twitter conversation that they are actually working on this. A smart chatbot to aid in community management will likely do volumes to improve the effectiveness of online communities, which are still getting short shrift in terms of investment in the professional skills needed to manage and facilitate them well.

In short, I believe smart chatbots will revolutionize digital/social engagement by adding a much needed automation and support of communication, knowledge management, and collaboration. There are also high value scenarios for chatbots connected to the e-commerce especially, an area that Facebook was careful to emphasize at F8. Chatbots will likely contribute to some digital noise as well, but filtering has proven effective in general for social environments in recent years. Overall, the emerging ensemble of conversational technologies is going to offer a compelling new access point to digital value for the average people in a very substantial way. At this point, I’d strongly recommend that most organizations add them to the new enterprise technologies to watch.) I will be adding smart chatbots to my upcoming 2016 enterprise tech watchlist on ZDNet as well.

Dear IT Department, Why Community Management Matters

It’s one of the curiosities of enterprise technology: Despite collaboration and engagement being an exclusively human activity — even when augmented and improved by digital tools — it’s the IT department that most often gets put in charge of rolling out said tools and then operating them long term.

According to recent research by the Real Story Group, IT is in fact far and away the most likely the department to both fund and sponsor, as well as implement social platforms in most organizations. Certainly, this seems to make sense, if one looks at social engagement as primarily a technology concern, rather than a powerful new human endeavor and way of working that is only in the end supported by new technologies.

Thus, even though HR, corporate communications, marketing, and other functions are very likely to be primary drivers and have direct input into the strategy for a social business effort, they have very little operational role in making the realization successful or managing it long term. Instead, IT typically treats the entire process like any other technology rollout to the organization. It goes through its tried and true playbook for bringing a new software product into the business, not fully understanding something rather different is required this time.

The Three Operational Elements of Communities: Project, Technology, and Community Management

The primary issue at stake is this: Social business in all its flavors — from social collaboration and social marketing to social customer care and even social supply chain — is not just another communications technology. Instead, it’s focused on engaging people in powerful new ways that requires a new set of digital skills in, yes, an enabling new technology environment. The tools are secondary (though important), how people work in effective new ways is what matters. Most significantly, a new operational entity emerges from this, called an online community, that did not exist before and requires its own cultivation and management.

The initiating business sponsors typically, for their part, are interested in connecting together people and their knowledge in more streamlined, dynamic, fluid, and actionable ways that benefits the work they are doing. It’s the people, ideas, and information they seek to tap into and unleash. But they don’t have the ability or responsibility to manage technology on their own. So they are usually required to reach out to the IT team to make their dreams come to life.

How Community Management Often Gets Left Out of Enterprise Social Projects

It’s at this point where things sometimes go off the rails. I’ve had this experience personally and continue to hear stories like this over and over again from social business practitioners, despite a growing body of evidence that shows what it takes for social business efforts to actually be successful. What I’m calling the “standard IT implementation process” leads too many community efforts to fall into a dysfunctional state that ensures they underperform. Perhaps the most common scenario is this:

  • A sponsor in the business comes to realize that a social business approach can benefit what they do. They seek to build and unleash communities on their business problems, and start thinking about the supporting technology they will need to make it happen.
  • The business sponsor involves the IT department for the technology component. The IT department, already owning a vast portfolio of tools, likely has a preferred solution from an entrenched vendor, instead of looking for the right technology to support the business requirements. Sometimes, if the business sponsor is lucky, a real technology evaluation is done. Either way, IT increasingly owns the project and planning because of the technical details. The business sponsor often loses control over the detailed planning and strategy, as complex technical details and issues start to obscure the original goals. Finding the best enabling environment for the community often becomes an afterthought.
  • The business sponsor seeks to drive forward the people-side changes and organizational support for the new social business effort. Proposals for shifting to new ways of working, providing education on new digital skills, and hiring support staff for the operations are too often to first items to get cut by the IT project committee. The technology should be self-evident, some say. It’s a simple training problem, say others. To almost everyone on the outside of the effort, looking at social business as a largely technology-based roll-out, it’s not obvious there’s a need for sustained workforce learning/skill building, change management of relevant business processes, or that the effort will create a large, new, unguided group of virtual people who are not directly supportable through traditional management or support processes. Because it’s new, few are even thinking about network leadership skills, for example.
  • The business sponsor, talking to social business efforts that were a success, learns about community management, a vital new support function for community-centric ways of working. The sponsor proposes that the company bring a couple of community managers on board, as they have heard they’ve turned out to be so helpful in other organizations. The response, because the request seems (and is) foreign and unusual, is either to deny the requests or offers up part-time volunteers that are currently available, usually interns or other junior staff with little to no experience actually managing large-scale business communities.
  • The big rollout happens, and the community limps along in an unmanaged fashion, with little direction or support. In the community, people ask questions, look for information, or otherwise engage but it often doesn’t go well and there’s no one to make sure it does. Other participants don’t know what to do with the new tools, or when/how to use them. The community often seems undirected and random, not guided or coached towards important business outcomes. With no one to inspire, troubleshoot, educate, and otherwise support the members, the community putters along with occasionally useful, but minor impact.

While I’m singling out IT departments for sometimes not providing the right resources to make online communities successful, the reality is community management, what I’ve long called the essential capability for online communities, can be neglected or underserved by anyone. Yet long-standing research from highly respected organizations like The Community Roundtable have found to be a top successful factor in realizing a social business solution.

Number of Community Managers by Organization Size

Ensuring Success with Social: Investing in Community Management

My advice to IT in order to avoid this scenario — based on many projects I’ve been involved in and many, many case studies — is this:

  1. Any social software that connects more than a handful of people together in a sustained way requires community management. You wouldn’t dream of rolling out an IT application without training or a help desk, or starting a project without project management, so please don’t operate an online community without its own relevant and critical form of enablement and support. Also, make sure you find the right community platform for your users. Note: That’s usually not the product that your incumbent vendor happens to have lying around.
  2. Use professional community managers. Hoping that you can have this strategic capability carried out by junior or inexperienced staff is a leading cause of low effectiveness of social platforms after rollout. While all communities usually have a big spike of usage upon release, there is usually a let down after everyone initially visits to see what it’s about. This is followed by a slow buildup as work steadily shifts to the enterprise social network, social customer care platform, customer community, and so on. This growth is greatly aided by community managers. This buildup is actually (mostly) created hundreds and even thousands of weekly activities taken by community managers to nurture, troubleshoot, support, and educate users on how to get the most from the new ways of working the technology makes possible.
  3. Community management, like IT support and training, never ends so plan for the long-term. Look at the historical data from average and best-in-class communities in the diagram above. This is a good starting rule of thumb on staff size. The amount of community managers required to make social business a success is actually quite small, but you must budget and staff them with experienced people year-in and year-out. Be sure to do so while accounting for the community growing over time, which it will if you have community managers.

IT Applications and Communities Both Need Management Support and Nurturing

As the old saying goes, I’ve actually come here to praise IT, not to bury it. I have an extensive IT background myself and so I know well the insane pace and enormous responsibilities for operations, security, and governance that are required to make technology in the enterprise successful. But I also know that when something very new and different is presented in a technology guise, that it’s hard not to run the same well-worn playbook that’s worked so well in the past. IT support and understanding for what is unique and important about communities is essential for successful social business. Many CIOs are indeed enabling it, just as many have not yet studied why it’s such a different technology animal.

Instead, IT leaders — and everyone really — has to understand why social business is special, why it requires both giving up non-essential control and letting the network do the work. And why it creates an vital new self-organizing entity of immense power that has started to change how organizations create value around the world: The digital community, and its critical enablement capability: Community management.

Additional Reading:

Online communities learn new practices, report higher ROI

Where to Position Online Community in Your Digital Strategy