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

The Hardest Lesson of Digital Transformation: Designing for Loss of Control

It goes hand in hand with another key principle that sets digital strategy well apart from many other traditional ways of achieving organizational objectives. One of the counterintuitive lessons of digital and social business is that the network itself can and should do the majority of the work, if you’ll only build a little social capital and then enable interested participants — people, in other words — access to a platform that allows the co-creation of shared value at scale. Oh, and yes, you must provide a good motivation for doing so, but they’ll often figure that out too.

By “majority of the work”, I mean that aligned stakeholders in digital platforms that allow participation will help produce literally nearly everything of value to them, from co-creation of content, activities, ideas, to even the very management, governance, and gardening of the digital ecosystem itself. The lesson here is clear from the consumer world where pioneering services such as YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn have long proved the viability and repeatability of this model on a global scale: Today’s most successful open digital platforms create virtually nothing themselves directly. Instead, they have gone through great lengths to provide a carefully constructed platform for their communities of millions and millions to do it indirectly instead.

It’s the asymmetric warfare model for the digital age and far too many organizations do not fully understand how profoundly the rules of business in the digital era have changed. Consequently, they are often at loss on how to lead the organization to better adapt. The test question is this: How can any traditional, internal, do-it-all-the-hard-way model for value creation compete with the hypercharged mass of networked participants — aka social business — that digital savvy organizations have gathering around them and are choreographing to create far richer results, often many orders of magnitude richer than the old guard methods?

The Key to Digital Transformation: Loss of Control

While the consumer space has seen the most success with this model, we now have good evidence that this is happening in the traditional enterprise with organizations like Bosch, Deutsche Bank, and a good number of others, that the same approach is making it into the business world. For the organizations that can fully tap into their stakeholders and inspire them to co-create the future together, nearly anything is possible, and consequently the competitive stakes are unsurprisingly, enormous and have been reshaping industries for the last decade, first media and software companies, and now nearly every industry with the rise of the sharing economy.

But successfully adopting a native digital perspective requires mastering a mindset that traditional management culture is both unfamiliar and rather uncomfortable with. Frankly, of all the top obstacles to digital change, very few are technological. They are almost always barriers created by people, and of the mental barriers, this is perhaps the most foreign concept of all: Deliberately giving up control in a conscious and designed way over your organization’s digital results, while guiding the emergent outcomes in directions that are good for both your business and your stakeholders. As I’ve been clear about before, this very much does not mean all positive control, just the non-essential elements (which admittedly is still most control.)

The motivation for doing so is very clear: Industrial age management structures, while effective (albeit with considerable cost) at producing linear output predictably, actually fail to tap into the lion’s share of potential value. A recent study by Cross, Rebele, and Grant of several hundred organizations only underscores this point:

[The] research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation. As a recent study led by Ning Li, of the University of Iowa, shows, a single “extra miler”—an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her role—can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

The key is understanding why this is such a powerful concept and the key to digital business, is realizing that the more control you give up and relinquish to the network, the more value comes back through peer production. A lot more. The secret lies in having something of value in the first place, that can be somehow enriched by others. This is where having a digital platform becomes essential, one that is designed with an effective architecture of participation that opens up your data, processes, distribution channels, supply chain, or anything of value that is digitally connected in some way to your organization.

The good news is that what a successful architecture of participation looks like, at least applied in generic terms, is increasingly well understood for many important digital business activities, even if it surprisingly is missing even today from many views of the digital enterprise, such as this one from McKinsey.

Common Architectures of Participation

Architecture of Participation Target of Open Participation Extended To Typical Value Change/Magnitude
Crowdsourcing Any type of digital content Interested parties 10x-1000x
Working Out Loud Work narrative, process, product Any stakeholders of work output 2x-10x
Affiliate E-Commerce The digital sales funnel Any interested entity with traffic 1.5x-5x
Open APIs Corporate data External partners desiring to innovate with the data 1.5x-100x
App Stores App ecosystem Developers seeking customers/revenue 100x-1000x
Online Customer Service Community Customer issues/problems Those willing to help 1.3x-3x
Digital Change Agents Platform Unmet digital needs in the org Those interesting in solving them 1.3x-3x

What’s worth noting is the powerful amplification/scaling effect that digital architectures of participation have. That’s because the cost of being connected to everyone who is already connected drops, like everything digital, quickly towards zero, as does the cost of creating and operating a platform that provides your carefully exposed points of participation to those stakeholders.

In effect, nearly no older way of working, managing, or doing business can fight the power laws of digital systems, which continually apply exponential forces to make value creating activities much faster, cheaper, higher volume, better quality, and so on.

This then is one of the key drivers to digital transformation and why it has such urgency. To get to the other side, however, requires a major shift in understanding where the majority of business value comes from, how best to capture it in digital markets, and what kind of thinking it require to design products and services that operate in an increasingly peer produced world. In other words, genuine hard work of creating the cultural, process, and organizational shifts that will lead to digital adaptation.

Perhaps most importantly is understanding is that shifts in mindset are the key to entry to digital business in general. When thousands of startups do little but obsess around the clock about how best to use the mass global connectedness we’ve attained with the Internet to achieve the previously unachievable — and most traditional businesses are not — we will almost certainly miss the very opportunity we were trying to accomplish with our old command and control methods. For sure, the jury is still out for many on the digital economy and who will ultimately be the beneficiaries, but to not even understand the game means that organizations are flying blind. And that’s the worst environment to achieve control one can imagine.

Note: I’d be rather remiss in not giving original credit for the Design for Loss of Control meme to the great JP Rangaswami. The concept goes right to the core of how to remove the many significant barriers that hold back digital in most organizations. Startups famously don’t have those blinders build it, the rest of us have to do a lot of relearning, and JP was instrumental in helping us see that.

Additional Reading

Shifting the Meaning of Business Hierarchy to Community

Designing the New Enterprise: Issues and Strategies

What’s Coming Next in Digital and Social in the Enterprise?

I’ve been taking a close look at what’s over the enterprise horizon for much of the year as the pace of technology change continues to accelerate, as most experts have long predicted and which will only continue. New platforms, technologies, product, services, and models are appearing at a constant pace these days. Many topics that are hot today were barely on anyone’s radar a short while ago, from the blockchain and holacracy, to social performance management and trimodal IT, to name four of a great many important topics that have been significant recently.

The result is, if you’re not currently dedicating a significant amount of time in some part of your organization researching what’s happening, the digital world is almost certainly leaving you behind. In fact, as I’ve been making the point recently, our traditional methods for adapting to and absorbing new technology are breaking down in the face of the torrent of digital innovation our organizations are currently experiencing. In short, we need new models and effective strategies for technology adaptation, and the good news is that some workable approaches are now emerging, discovered and proven in recent years new through bold experiments by IT and business leaders in the field. Even though culture and practices are likely to be the biggest obstacle, as Isaac Sackolick recently observed, we still need new processes that span IT and business that can greatly accelerate our ability to adapt to the marketplace.

Tracking Digital/Social Innovations with Business Impact

But, as we’re sorting out how we should strategically manage our technology portfolios today, we still need to keep a close eye on the stream of what’s happening in digital and social, making sure key developments are on our evaluation and adoption plans as appropriate. To that end, I’ll be taking my latest survey of high impact new digital technologies likely to offer significant advantage to the enterprise in the very near future for my upcoming session at Dreamforce 2015 next week in San Francisco.

What is next in the enterprise for digital and social

One thing is sure however: Digital transformation must take place hand-in hand with human transformation. So I’ve broken the list down into those two swimlanes, as we have to both change our technology landscape and ourselves into order to more successfully adapt. I’ve also included three verticals that I believe are experiencing particular disruption/renewal due to recent digital advances.


Technology Dimension Human Dimension
Wearables Future Skilling
Digital Assistants Citizen Developer
Robotic Process Automation Work Hacking
Mind/Machine Interfaces Networks of Excellence + Change Agents
Virtual Reality Platforms Trimodal+ IT
Microframeworks InnovationDevSecOps
Low Code Platforms Digital Management Models
Applied Machine Learning New Digital Career Tracks
AI-Based Social Analytics SocBizOps
Community Management-as-a-Service Social HR and Sales
Social Aggregation 2.0 (Apps/SNS Silos) Swarm Intelligence, Working
Social Payments Social Performance Management

Note: I’ve included links to some of these advances above, but will explore them individually in more detail on ZDNet soon.

I also believe there are some major developments in healthcare (wellness tracking, social electronic medical records, healthcare communities), financial services (cryptocurrency, partner networks, digital advisors), and higher education (adaptive learning communities, student/alumni communities, and new digital learning spaces) that represent major opportunities for the majority of organizations in these sectors.

To get a deeper exploration of each of these topics, please attend my Dreamforce 2015 session, titled “Vital Trends in Digital/Social Impacting Your Business in 2015 & Beyond” at the Hilton Union Square, Continental Parlor 5 on Tuesday, September 15th at 2:30PM PT.

Update: My deck for this session has now been posted on Slideshare.

Additional Reading:

The Enterprise Technologies to Watch in 2015

How Digital Collaboration Will Evolve in 2015

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

How Should Organizations Actually Go About Digital Transformation?

This is now the question that is top of mind in a large number of enterprises today, as speeding up adaptation to rapidly evolving digital markets is now not just a requirement to grow today, but increasingly to survive.

This is not incautious language and I’ve been pointing to the relatively urgent data for several years: One major slip as organizations fully digitize their workforces, supply chains, and externally facing products and services is easily enough to put an organization into significant and potentially permanent decline.

Recently, I’ve seen increasingly precise frameworks and round-ups — such as this great summary by Fabien Osmont — emerging lately on what companies should be doing to prepare for the full-on of digital transformation. One of the latest is BCG’s new transformation process for CEOs looking to make major changes. I’ve further argued that 2015 is the year that digital transformation should be taken on as a first class citizen all the way up the board of directors, something that’s gratifying being borne out in actual practice now.

Initiating Digital Transformation: The Journey for Board of Directors, CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, CMO, and CDO and the Communities

Such depictions of the necessary steps are certainly welcome, but should only be used as a starting point and with a large grain of salt given how much we still have to discover: We are still in the cave painting days of digital, as I like to say, and possibly the single most important activity of the entire effort is to be avid learners of the lessons that result. And then respond quickly to them. If there is a second urgent lesson coming from the stories of digital change, is that swiftly making moves builds momentum and can make leaders almost uncatchable. It’s one of the reasons that continuous delivery is a common component of high performing digital teams.

Another item unfortunately missing from almost all of the many views of digital transformation today, is simply the significant inherent structural barriers to change, including lack of effective mindset for digital. The processes and frameworks almost always greatly under-appreciate how much change — which is rapidly growing — in the digital world, and how poorly prepared, both in terms of scalable, repeatable processes for change and to the organization’s natural inclination to pro-actively seek urgent changes out. Over the last several years, it’s become abundantly that traditional, linear processes just aren’t up to the task, yet that’s what most still prescribe.

The inadequacy of traditional processes for digital change and evolution became obvious years ago when we learned traditional project management fared rather badly when applied to IT and software development in particular. This realization spilled over to many other arenas. New open methods emerged that were much more effective in a fundamental digital arena. These included open source methods, agile development, peer production, crowdsourcing, mass collaboration, social business, devops, and so on. Not coincidentally, each one of these advances ended up involving open, self-organizing collaboration among many well-informed individuals, instead of a few central leaders. And each development was a breakthrough in terms of performance, but confined mostly to digital domains.

Now the same is beginning to happen with business, with new digital era management methods informed how we can better run our organizations. Change agents loosely connected to transformation efforts by networks, as I explored recently, are now the order of the day, skipping past those unwilling or unable to join the organization in building towards the future, finding those most passionate about and willing to lead the change with local knowledge and motivation.

Communities of Change Agents Key to Sustainable Digital Transformation

Organizations, if they even hope to have the bandwidth and capacity to sustain change, which I’d observe, is essentially becoming continuously, must structure their digital transformation effort in a new way. Gone is top-down change. Gone are hulking centralized bureaucracies that have limited ability to effect change across today’s large global organizations. Instead, lightweight nimble networks of change agents across departments, divisions, and teams that align themselves to the organization’s journey is what will be required. Is this the open, crowdsourcing of transformation? Yes, and much more.

Based on a growing number of examples from top companies, I believe it’s now clear that new models and methods are the only real way to sustain change and any transformation process must acquire and wield them at the core of what they do. Leadership is still required to focus, guide, and inspire, but the work must be done by the entire organization (or least the parts most willing to.) I’ve synthesized a model for how this will look above, involving all the key stakeholders in the entire organziation. I encourage your input on how we can improve it based on the latest experiences in the field. I believe it’s an incredibly exciting time to be in business, and it will be a rewarding one for those that apply the right new methods, matched to the contemporary operating environment in which we find ourselves.

Additional Reading

The Strategic Role of Digital Networks in Corporate Leadership Today

The Role of the CIO in Digital and Social Business Transformation

Closing the gap between executives and digital transformation

Why the Underlying Laws of Cloud, Social, and Digital Business Matter

I’ve spent much of my Memorial Day Holiday here in the United States pondering the Red Queen effect vs. network effects, seminal laws of technology and business both, that are often held as gospel by their adherents who believe they are the natural and intrinsic properties of their operating environments (digital ecosystems in this case.)

Both hypotheses apply to any connected, relatively closed environment of some kind, which very much includes everything from traditional marketplaces, online communities, app stores, cloud services, SaaS, enterprise social networks, social media, and cable/video networks to e-mail, telephones, and package delivery. I cite these, as many practitioners don’t even consider system concepts when trying to figure out why they aren’t succeeding as hoped, despite those very ideas defining the rules of the playing field they’re working upon.

Both Red Queen and network effects have years of rigorous research and thinking to back them up, and as far as they go, they make real sense of the modern world as explanations for why things are the way they are in various places. This includes how organisms compete, survive, and thrive in the natural world or how networked products and services grow and maintain dominance on the Internet, respectively. These combined environments will ultimately lead to what I’m currently calling the 4th Platform.

Digital Business: Network Effects and Red Queen

The issue here is looking at why there are so many so-called ‘winner-take-all’ players at the top of the technology industry, especially on the Internet. In the shadows, nowhere near as successful, there are usually hundreds — sometimes thousands — of also-rans, depending on the sector, who struggle mightily, but usually fail. Rarely are the winners dethroned, though it does occasionally happen (see: AOL, MySpace, Friendster, RIM/Blackberry, all top digital players in their day.)

What triggered this line of thinking was Gartner’s fascinating new report on the Magic Quadrant for Cloud Infrastructure, which makes the stunning claim that Amazon now has 10 times more cloud computing capacity in use than the entire total of all the other 14 providers combined. The company is deeply wired into over a million customers’ ecosystems, and thousands of online products. By any estimation it is uncatchable.

Sidebar: Interestingly, this hasn’t stopped technology leaders such as Staples CIO Tom Conophy from stating last week that they’re going after Amazon “in a big way.” This despite the fact that both organizations aren’t even playing on the same digital meta-level.

Or is Amazon uncatchable? Don’t we just need to go ‘up the stack.’ As it turns out, not if it just leads to commoditization.

If traditional enterprises — and yes, more likely, startups — can only understand the fundamental rules by which the Amazon, Apple, and Facebook et al became leaders, the reasoning goes, we should be able to use those very rules against them. We should then be collectively able to out-innovate, out-invest, out-maneuver our competition and get to the top of an increasingly shallow but very, very steeply inclined pile of winners.

Deep thinkers in this space like my industry colleague Simon Wardley note that network effects create enormous inertia for change that make it very hard for a new player to get started, even if they’re much, much better. Worse, this is true even if you realize this and try to organize and optimize for it. You are simply spitting in the wind. Market-leading network effects, in fact, nearly always easily trumps the seemingly-powerful Red Queen Effect.

None of this is a new discussion of course, and the power laws of digital networks, such as Reed’s Law, have been relatively well-understood for at least decade. But their effects are now inexorably felt in the traditional business world like never before.

Using Networked Relationships Built on Enduring Digital Values

Ultimately, as organizations increasingly perceive the imperative to put a digital layer over their entire organization, even completely re-imagine it for the new models of digital business, there are some key fundamentals that we have to remember to close the gaps:

  1. Count on nearly everything in the ecosystem to eventually drop to effectively zero cost. Do not build your digital business along the commoditization axis. Only the underlying properties, like network effects, are exempted from this rule and this is a potent realization. We will eventually get the cost of nearly all technology to nothing, making replication and competition both easy and rampant. This isn’t where most businesses would like to be. However, network relationships like communities, total aggregate API integrations of partners, total daily users contributing value, these cannot never be copied whole cloth on an increasingly low cost scale. When people are involved, commoditization is not possible, and real, meaningful human relationships then become the strategic coin of the digital realm.
  2. Use differentiated models for commodity elements of digital business, versus the methods you employ for the innovative (and most important) elements. Social business, bi-modal IT (actually, tri-modal), devops, and even agile, are still the mantra here. These methods have been discovered to operate on the scale, speed, and collaborative dimensions required of today’s rapid digital cadence. Even better, they connect people the best way — that we know of so far — with how modern technology profoundly alters and — mostly — improves the way we work.
  3. If you are a large organization, you’ll have to operate in sometimes truly unexpected new ways to deliver well on digital. In particular, this means powerful new network models of organization structure — in IT and everywhere else — as well as new widespread digital workplace skills to be able to change at a sufficiently high and sustained rate.
  4. In other words, most organizations must rapidly evolve their operating models to adapt to the rules of the digital networks. A few have, but most still have not. There’s still time in a few industries however, but not a tremendous amount. For most, however, it’s now later than they think.

The Modern Digital Workforce: Engaged with Knowledge Flows and Each Other

State of Social Business Adoption

The Five Paths to Enterprise Online Community Engagement

How To Scale Social Business For The Real World

The Journey Of The Social Customer

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