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?

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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

How Online Communities Became Central To How We Work

Communities make just about everything we do today in our organizations better. That was essentially the message at FeverBee SPRINT last week in San Francisco, a confab of several hundred online community practitioners sharing lessons learned and best practices.

To be sure, we have sometimes been able to do what digital communities make possible in other, older ways, but these outdated methods are invariably more time-consuming, costly, and scale up relatively poorly. In fact, it’s the singularly remarkable concept of letting the network do the work that is the foundational concept behind what makes a community so special in how it achieves the many remarkable things that it does.

Today, all of our organizations today are greatly outnumbered by their stakeholders. We always were. But now they are all connected continuously to us and attempting to engage. We’ve also learned that the more that we can somehow engage with them, the more shared value that can be created. One key strategy, is to gather our stakeholders around us digitally, and let them share in the effort. This offloads us and makes engagement at scale manageable, even possible.

How Online Communities Have Matured In Terms of Use

None of this is new or surprising for those who’ve been involved in communities. Created around a group of people with a set of common purposes, communities will go almost entirely of themselves, with its members supporting each other, learning from each other, innovating together, co-creating, and more, with some oversight by that absolutely key role, the online community manager.

So when companies develop purposeful digital venues and enlist the participation of interested stakeholders, those communities will still do those same things, but around more work-focused goals, like customer care, product education, sales enablement, product development, and numerous other use cases. The key concept here is that effort is shared by the entire community, and not provided entirely by the one stakeholder that used to do most or all of the work in a fairly limited, expensive, and slow fashion by comparison: The organization itself.

Getting back to the conference, I was invited by FeverBee’s Richard Millington to provide a look at the near future of community management, the profession that has emerged to make communities thrive and succeed, and which no community can afford not to invest as much as it can, if it hopes to see the desired results. Using the latest case examples and customer results, I took a look at some of the leading examples of what organizations are doing with community, to extrapolate what we all might accomplish with a bit better understanding of what’s possible. Here is what I believe that we’ve learned and what’s next for most of us.

Recent Strategic Lessons of Community Management

    • Community success measures and KPIs are maturing. In some cases, companies have gone well beyond superficial adoption metrics like unique monthly logins, and measured business impact such as process effectiveness, productivity improvements, higher customer satisfaction, and more. This letting organizations that measure and optimize for these outcomes, get outsized results.
    • New ways of working are being developed using a community-first model. Organizations like the industrial product giant Bosch have imagined how their core processes work to literally require community to get the them done, in order to maximize the benefits. I cited how one key process that took 4 weeks, was collapsed to 6 days when it was re-engineered to work using the company’s enterprise social network.
    • Community is becoming the organizing principle for digital experience. At first, using the scale of community as a shock absorber for engaging at scale, companies are finding that community makes virtually every customer and workforce function better by unleashing co-creation. Marketing works better (advocacy), sales works better (community reference checks), operations work better (social exception handling), customer care (community-based support), and so on. The same across digital channels as well, from Web site to mobile application: When community is present, the channel works better.
    • Companies that teach their employees modern digital literacy skills do better with community. Folks like John Stepper at Deutsche Bank are building skills like Working Out Loud to maximize the returns on community.
    • Community ambassador programs are driving sustained results. Just like the data now says that advocacy programs work with customer communities to drive an increase in corporate growth, the communities themselves are using formal champions programs who can be used to spread awareness, skills, and support.
    • Human resources has discovered community. The CHRO in many organizations is now sponsoring enterprise-wide community-based employee engagement efforts, while the rest of the department has discovered what amazing stakeholders are already in our communities, ready to be tapped for recruiting, hiring, onboarding, employee retention programs, learning and development, and knowledge capture.

In short, I believe the future of management itself is significantly described by the emerging role of community management, a skill which is borne out of guiding — and therefore leading — large groups of decentralized people with shared objectives towards common goals. We are witnessing the network-enablement of management in powerful ways, and it’s part of the whole package of digital skills that we must convey to our entire workforce, not just community managers, though they are the ones that need it first.

It was also great to see industry luminaries like Rachel Happe, Kare Anderson, and others at the event show us how far we’ve come with communities.

The keynote deck I used for FeverBee SPRINT 2015 in San Francisco can be found on Slideshare below:

What Lies at the Cutting Edge of Online Communities and Community Management

Additional Reading:

Defining the Next Generation Enterprise with Community

Is the Window Closing on Enterprise Customer Communities?

How Organizations Can Address the Challenges of Modern Digital Collaboration

It’s now clear to me that we must take bold new steps if we are to truly improve the state of workforce collaboration in most organizations. As the majority of us are doing it today, digital collaboration is largely stuck in the doldrums.

The known issues are numerous: The tools themselves are either too complex, specialized, or advanced, or worse, not a good fit for our organizations but are appealing due to unrelated reasons like vendor stability or wide adoption elsewhere. Often, our workforces are too entrenched in older ways of working (or, just as likely, woefully untrained in the new.)

Collaboration itself is now appearing everywhere, as a digital capability embedded in many of our technology products. This fundamentally human group activity — which is absolutely vital to produce results in today’s knowledge-driven organizations — has either been added as a secondary ‘feature’ in many of our existing applications, or is literally raining down upon us from the cloud as hundreds of startups continually try to improve what’s possible and get into our organizations to better meet our users’ needs than we are today, often as I pointed out yesterday, by appealing to them directly.

Resolving the Digital Collaboration Paradox

Enterprise Collaboration: A Highly Varied Strategic Capability We Must Enable

We’ve also seen that collaboration is often held up as a virtue in relative isolation, but not well-connected to how work actually gets done, or poorly understood as a human skillset so applied even more poorly with the technology, and certainly not last, applied as a one-size-fits-all technology solution, when collaboration-critical domains like STEM, creative disciplines, innovation, sales, and marketing, could not possibly have more diverse scenarios and styles of collaboration.

The result is that our organizations are filled with rather disjointed collaborative technology. We find ourselves generally limping along and reporting rather limited (albeit actual) results as all of these pieces and trends of today’s digital collaboration puzzle fit together relatively poorly.

In recent years, I’ve been working with many organizations on many of these collaboration challenges. But it’s been the last couple of years that these issues have come to a head in many companies. I’ve previously highlighted some key trends that are making it very hard to improve the status quo in most large organizations.

But perhaps most pernicious of all of these issues is the traditional view that collaboration is a monolithic thing we must all do the same way. It’s not. It’s a highly varied, innately human process that has unique needs and requires unique capabilities to optimally support different kinds of work, and it’s time we recognized this. That most organizations look at document-centric tools like SharePoint as a universal collaboration solution, or social business platforms like enterprise social networks as the ultimate end-goal for how we work together is now evident as both a failure of imagination, and failure as a strategy. It’s not working well in most organizations, and most of us now realize it. I speak to organizations almost weekly that are trying to ‘rationalize’ their collaboration strategies in this complex, fast-changing, and difficult new operating environment, but unsure what to do about it.

Fundamentally Changing How We Manage Digital Collaboration as Organizations

While there is probably more than one answer to this set of problems, it’s obvious that what most of are doing — while actually producing some useful results — is falling far short of what’s possible. What’s worse (or terrific, depending on how you look at it), is that we’re now being dragged wholesale into confronting the issue by the business-side of our organizations, who are simply not waiting for IT departments for leadership any longer. They want collaboration solutions that fit them instead of the abstract needs of the organization as a whole, understand the work they do locally, and that employ new technologies to dramatically improve what they do. As a result of inaction in most organizations, shadow IT is off the charts this year, and the majority of it is related to tools that support some form of collaboration or data sharing.

Fortunately, our options are simple: We can do one of two things. A) Ignore these issues and attempt to lock out any unofficial collaboration tools, a process that I can now assure you will do more harm that good, and won’t stop the trend, as users in aggregate now own and wield more and better IT than most of our organizations, and aren’t listening to us.

Or B) we can find better ways to tap into demand and unleash innovation — in particular, by employing business/user change agents and other proactive/transformational capabilities — when it comes to one of the most important work activities in our businesses, and establish a sustainable rate of change, all the while spending our scarce centralized tech resources on keeping new collaborative tech secure, broken out of silos, well-integrated, universally searchable, as part of a rational yet far more diverse and fluid collaboration architecture.

In this model, salespeople, operations staff, project teams, R&D, customer care, and many others will benefit by helping bring in new collaborative technology optimized for their needs, and to which they are increasingly reaching out and adapting to anyway.

This whole conversation is all part of the future of work and the future of IT that I’ve been exploring over the last year. In case you’re wondering, a newly inclusive, open, and decentralized model of digital transformation appears to be an broad and significant new trend. I’ve been documenting compelling examples in large organizations, including companies like Liberty Mutual, whose CIO Mojgan Lefebvre considers shadow IT, rightly, as a vital proof-of-concept led from outside the IT organization. I believe there is a fairly short path to changing our posture to take advantage of these combined trends to our tremendous benefit, tapping into new collaborative capabilities, distributed change capacity at scale, all while still meeting our obligations as technology professionals and keeping new diverse IT solutions secure, archived, governed, managed, and protected.

In my opinion, most organizations no longer have a choice, as the the traditional legacy methods we’ve long used to manage the IT lifecycle have become inappropriate for how technology is used to meet business needs in many cases today. Perhaps the most challenging: Success will require business and IT to come together like never before.

This is a vital industry conversation we need to continue having together, working through the issues that will surely crop up as we go down an exciting and rewarding but also no doubt very challenging near-future with new models for enabling our organizations with technology.

Additional Reading

How to Deliver on a Modern Collaboration Strategy

Online communities are now producing results, reporting ROI

IT Leaders Are a Critical Catalyst for Unifying and Leading Digital Transformation

How Digital Collaboration is Fragmenting, and Why It’s a Major Opportunity

A significant issue has been developing in digital collaboration for the last several years, and it’s now starting to become somewhat acute. I’m referring here to the pronounced trend towards app, environment, and channel fragmentation. Over the last few of years, I have been speaking with beleaguered IT managers who are struggling to cope with the sheer proliferation of software, systems, and applications that purport to help workers with collaboration. It’s not a new problem, and smart folks like Dave Winer have long worried about it, but it’s now becoming a vital strategic concern.

A variety of factors are contributing to fragmentation: Every department and function now seems to have existing vertical systems — such as their standard HR, sales, or customer care solutions — that have recently added social media, collaboration, sharing, messaging, shared content editing, document attachments, activity streams, rich user profiles, and so on to their feature sets. At the same time, many exciting new applications have emerged on the scene recently that seem nearly must-have to many of us: Dropbox, Box, Slack, even arguably IBM Verse. All of these in turn compete with the officially sanctioned collaboration applications already in the workplace currently, from e-mail and SharePoint to whatever enterprise social network and unified communications platforms have been selected under the CIO’s purview.

The Horizontal and Vertical Fragmentation of Digital Collaboration Tools

Some of these new collaboration applications are brought through the front door in by lines of business that feel they have special needs. Others are so-called “shadow IT” deployments by teams and departments who believe they require certain features or prefer the ease-of-use of alternative collaboration tools, but don’t want to go through the formal hassle of getting blessing. Finally, a good many come in via legacy adoption via mergers/acquisitions or through individual users using their own devices and app stores.

Note: User-driven IT itself isn’t the problem here, it’s actually a key source of opportunity if wielded properly in a network of enabled/supported change agents.

Related: What Does a Modern Collaboration Strategy Look Like?

Too Many Collaboration Tools, Not Enough Collaborative Reach

Whatever the source, this trend is creating dozens — and sometime hundreds, in large enterprises — of collaborative silos, where participants and their information are trapped, inaccessible and invisible to a broader range of potential actors. Worse, unlike the original communications tools in the industry — like e-mail — the walled garden trend that started with the great consumer social networks — largely to support business models and not to help users — has decisively shifted to enterprise collaboration software today. Thus, unless you have a license and are using the exact same app, chances are increasingly poor that you can collaborate with someone unless they are using the exact same toolkit and environment.

I’ve pointed this out in the past, the we have an urgent problem with our collaboration tools not talking to each other. I’d say it’s now a critical issue that threatens the very high-value, human-centric activity that we are supposed to be enabling: Better collaboration. In addition to the typical common issues, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that users have moved away from a collaboration tool because they can’t easy work with customers, or business partners, who are usually outside the company and don’t have access to the same tools or environment.

Now the issue is not just that we have barriers, but that we have so many new applications that we are employing, very few of which are interoperable. The result is that we are creating a growing array of inaccessible bubbles of insulated collaboration within our organizations. Much of this is done in the name of achieving worthwhile goals: Accessing powerful new capabilities, modernizing our workplace tools, improving security, and/or making sure we have vendor stability. However, we’re learning that we are often creating a solution that’s potentially much worse than the problem we’re trying to solve.

Commercial Silos of Social and Collaboration

In Social, We’ve Moved Once from Open Federation to Silos. Now We Must Move Back.

One of the challenges of adopting new digital solutions for collaboration has been that they’re often championed by those for whom technology isn’t their primary background. Consequently, federated architectures, open standards-based technology, and interoperability usually aren’t high on the list of sought after features for collaboration tools by most business users. Partially as a result, growing islands of collaboration have become a very real problem today, as lack of decent connection between our collaboration tools is — instead of creating a large and growing body of collective intelligence accessible to all — is actually resulting in parochial backwaters where too few people use the tools to make them worthwhile.

Certainly, some of the latest additions to the industry pool of collaboration options — and yes, I’m talking about Slack here — are designed specifically to address this issue, as it becomes one of the largest — and most ironic — new obstacles to effective collaboration: Too many apps and channels for working, none of which share well with each other. Solutions like Slack make all the knowledge and content flowing through our many individual business applications, visible from one collaboration platform. And that’s certainly one major way to solve the problem. Certainly, approaches like OpenSocial have tried to tackle it in other ways, and now the W3C Social Web Working Group is looking at the issue as well. So perhaps we’ll still end up with an SMTP for collaboration, but we don’t have it yet.

In the past, I’ve exhorted our industry — especially the most strategic and important aspect of it, social collaboration — to stop the fragmentation and create interoperability standards. But vendors — who can only exist when there are enough customers — have little incentive to help others, nor do their users insist on it. In fact, I’ve steadily come to believe that the problem with not be solved by vendors, customers, or even standards bodies, each of which has a) corporate goals contrary to a real solution to making collaboration tools work together, b) don’t fully understand the details of collaborative systems and their management well enough, or c) can’t gain traction because of the first two issues, respectively.

A Quick Back-of-the-Envelope Proof

As a cross-check, especially since I’m seeing the flow of new collaboration applications increase rather than decrease, I took a look (results in first diagram above) at some of the top types of collaboration tools (content/document management, intranets, social collaboration tools, ESNs, unified communication platforms, e-mail, and mobile collaboration tools) and put them on another dimension against various leading corporate functions (marketing, sales, operations, customer care/support, research & development, HR, legal, IT, and supply chain), and I was able to quickly find many apps — often some just newly emerged — that could fit in each and every intersection between the two axes. This would not have been possible 2-3 years ago. In other words, everything we do is quickly becoming collaborative.

And as a result, the risk is that soon little will be, as collaboration is divided across hundreds of isolated systems that we mostly can’t see and don’t have access to internally, sharply limiting the rich results from collaboration that only open technology can uniquely provide: Working out loud, open and transparency business practices, a corporate body of knowledge, and reuse and learning from everything that the company knows, all lying searchable on the corporate network.

Related: A CIO’s Guide to the Future of Work

The Issue of Collaborative Silos Must Be Solved. And Because They Must, They Will. But When?

Instead, as the issue becomes a top one for many corporations, I now believe it’s more likely that we’ll see inclusive approaches (again like Slack and a few others like Xendo have done) that ensure these barriers don’t form, that are based on market drivers and ultimate customer value. In fact, I now see that some customers are increasingly frustrated that they can’t use their shiny new tools to work with everyone they want, or are cut-off from the communities, channels, and knowledge that they need to do their job. Fortunately, these stakeholders are the ones likely to drive the changes we need to see.

This may perhaps, at least for the smart software companies and open source projects that understand this increasingly urgent issue, be the next big opportunity for them: They must be the integrating force, the unifying center of collaboration for the enterprise, bringing all the major applications, systems, and data pools together — and make it easy for IT or others to bring in their own local apps — so that we no longer have such highly ironic digital isolation.

I fully realize this issue is not one that people can get as passionate about as the main topic of contemporary collaboration. But unless we fully understand what kind of results we are really creating, we’re going to be building as many walls and barriers as we are new modes and venues of digital collaboration. If we want, we can greatly accelerate a new and better way, a more unified way, and push for interoperability that’s as good or better than e-mail has, then truly create the collaborative worlds of our dreams.

Finally, it’s not up to someone else to make sure this takes place. It’s up to us.

Additional Reading:

The digital collaboration industry continues to flourish

Watching digital collaboration evolve: Key events in the last year

How to improve global workforce collaboration