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?

It’s Time to Transform ERP into a System of Engagement

The IT industry has steadily been moving beyond its roots in data management and record keeping for a few decades now, approximately since the advent of corporate e-mail. As I’ve tracked over the years, this trend is more broadly known as the shift from systems of record to systems of engagement. Over the years, we’ve witnessed how the value of IT systems grows dramatically when they focus as much on connecting people and systems together with as little friction as possible, as they do on storing and retrieving information.

We’ve also collectively learned as an industry that one-size-fits-all technology, especially in the enterprise, often ends up fitting the needs much fewer people than we expect. Put simply, despite all countless industry lessons learned, enterprise systems are still far too unwieldy, adapted poorly to individual users needs, difficult to use, and an impediment towards value creation, especially at the edges of our organization, where key business activities such as sales, marketing, service delivery, and customer care take place.

Today’s Successful Enterprise Systems Engage Effectively

In recent years, new highly personal forms of digital engagement have demonstrated a new path to us through the large scale global success of social media, use-anywhere smart mobile devices, and consumer apps that are essentially effortless to acquire and use.

When I look at most enterprise IT today however, it’s clear that the buyer is not the end-user but IT departments and other stakeholders who won’t have to use the systems themselves. The traditional ERP system, which runs much of the mission critical infrastructure, is possibly the worst offender and most in need of remediation in today’s era of highly consumable personal IT, which runs rings around most enterprise technology when it comes to usability, personalization, fitness to purpose, and responsive design.

The Contemporary Enterprise: Systems of Records and Systems of Engagement

Certainly, enterprise systems often have a very different set of goals than consumer IT, including much higher levels of security, more rigor in data structure and quality, complex operating requirements, and other factors that consumer IT simply doesn’t have to contend with. I’d argue these are, however, just not valid excuses for meeting the standards of modern IT systems when it comes to improving productivity, usefulness, and effective results in our organization. As I’ve long argued, we need to unclog the arteries of enterprise IT for competitive reasons as well as basic employee retention, given trends I’m seeing in end-user expectations of how IT systems should work.

At this point in IT industry evolution, I’d argue that the nature of the enterprise procurement process, along the roles of those typically charged with IT acquisition each conspire against the kinds of systems that users — and the business itself — would find more useful and productive in getting their work done. Plenty of evidence now shows that usability and accessibility have large benefits when it comes to getting results from enterprise IT.

An actual data point from the respected Nielsen Norman Group serves to make the point here: Allocating a mere 10% of the budget of your IT system to usability will approximately double the quality metrics for the system. Yet few projects allocate anything like this amount, especially to off-the-shelf systems.

Modernizing the ERP for Engagement by Augmenting It

So how can we overhaul the poor effectiveness of today’s ERP systems and bring the latest advances in today’s systems of engagement to bear to increase the poor usability of ERP systems that Jon Innes famously lamented back in 2010.

Given the slow rate of change in the usability and reach of ERP systems over the years, I’d now argue that we’re not going to see a major improvement in the design of ERP systems themselves. Instead, I now see that enterprises, which have invested enormous amounts in their existing enterprise systems, have little choice from most of the leading vendors. Instead, the typical ERP system should instead be augmented with the capabilities that will provide the full measure of value creation that was originally hoped for.

To this end, I’ve authored a new white paper that lays out my analysis that we’re about to enter a new era of enterprise IT. One that is not just more consumerized and highly usable, but focused on both the needs of the business and end-user both. By augmented ERP with effective systems of record, most organization can now take the power of today’s sophisticated ERP systems and extend them to wherever they are needed in a far more personalized, dynamic, and focused way.

As a new generation of IT thinking emerges, I now see that this will be the pattern of ERP and most enterprise IT systems, in that they will become a fusion of capable foundational systems of record and systems of engagement. The latter will either be purpose-built or developed by a new generation of enterprise IT companies that understand the new generation of IT, consumerization, design thinking, and usability on top of traditional IT requirements.

How ERP Will Become the New Systems of Engagement White Paper by Dion Hinchcliffe

Credit: I’d like to thank Capriza for making my time available for the research and analysis that went into this white paper, which is freely available for download.

Vital Trends in Digital Experience and Transformation in 2016

This year I was invited again to come to Dreamforce in San Francisco and present on the latest developments in digital experience and digital transformation for the conference’s Emerging Tech Trends track. Surprisingly well-attended given the satellite location of the track at the Hilton Union Square, having to prepare this session is always a good opportunity for me to go over my research in the last year and map out what’s likely going to happen next.

For myself at least, it’s clear that human change has become closely linked to and as important as digital change, so I have divided up the trends list in the last two years into a tech dimension and a human dimension.

The bottom line: How we think, work, and react as people has tremendous impact on the usefulness and effectiveness of emerging technology. It’s what separates the digital native from those who are just beginning the journey. For example, those not inclined to share information won’t get much use from the technologies and techniques of social business, nor will those who are uncomfortable and unused to spending time in virtual worlds be able to take advantage of the rich opportunities of virtual reality. And if we’re not changing our leadership skills to be more network-centric as opposed to hierarchy-centric, then much of the business value of digital experience and engagement is wasted on us. The list goes on.

What’s more, not only are we co-evolving with our tech, but we need to understand how we need to change just as much as the technology is changing. This is required in order to a) understand the art of the possible and b) to be able to access technology’s unique and historic new value propositions.

What's Next in Digital and Social Experience and Digital Transformation in 2016

Another point I make early in the presentation is the technology is changing exponentially right now and has climbed into a rather steep part of the curve, yet our organizations just don’t change on the same curve. Instead, we change far more linearly, at best logarithmically (see slide 8.) That’s not to say that that enterprises can’t organize themselves to change much faster, but in order to do so we must employ fundamentally new ways to transform organizations. Certainly, some organizations are adapting faster and digital transforming more sustainably (see data on slide 4.)

Sidebar: I’ve recently been exploring what these new models for sustainable yet highly scalable models for digital transformation, even proving them out on client projects I’ve been working on over the last few years. The key seems to be a more network-based, decentralized, and emergent approach I’ve called a Network of Excellence.

Emergent Tech Trends Inputs

For this year’s round-up of emerging tech trends, in addition to original research, I used as inputs several items:

Major new additions to the list include digital assistants/bots/chatbots, blockchain, omnichannel, workplace app integration, and collaborative EMRs, along with significant tweaks in a variety of the existing trends.

You can see the whole deck with an overview of each trend on Slideshare. I’ll post any video that is produced as well.

Also, in other Dreamforce news, you can review my live blog of the main Dreamforce keynote as well as my current assessment this week of the Salesforce platform and ecosystem.

Additional Reading

Digital priorities for the CIO in 2016 | ZDNet

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

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

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

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?