While many organizations are still ascending the early portion of the ladder of enterprise social media adoption, a growing number of efforts are becoming increasingly organized at a strategic level. In both my research and work in the field, I’ve found that this higher level of formality and ceremony can be invaluable for driving broad awareness and uptake across the business. It can also help foster the vital political consensus to drive the real changes needed to attain the more transformative possibilities of social business and Enterprise 2.0.
Yet, though C-level involvement is one of the single most effective ways to gain approval for the needed resources, functional cohesion, and organizational priority, it’s also a good recipe for bottling up internal social media in a manner that ends up moving it through the traditional IT project machine. This oft-careworn process is usually a well-established — and largely well-intentioned — “sausage maker” for repeatably fielding new IT solutions in a linear and highly structured fashion (though it’s showing serious signs of age.)
The sequence of events is familiar to most of us: Capture business requirements, make build vs. buy decisions, acquire technical solutions, define the architecture, conduct security audits, build out infrastructure, deploy, support the result, and so on. Most IT departments can generally carry out this process fairly well. However, a successful outcome is predicated on a couple of key assumptions that often turn out not to be true for social business (and too often, other specialties as well).) In particular, these assumptions are:
1. The specific requirements for social media functionality can be identified in sufficient detail up front.
2. That the near-term social media needs of users are not only largely predictable, but will change relatively slowly.
As you might suspect, both of these key assumptions are essentially anathema to the underlying nature of social media itself, which is highly dynamic, unpredictable, fast-moving, and free flowing.
This means classical, waterfall implementation processes might be the leastlikely to encourage the highly organic and semi-chaotic pathways that social media needs to take as it’s adopted well and ultimately employed usefully on the ground. In fact, this unpredictability and autonomous nature, as uncomfortable as it can make those that want to plan and control things, are what makes social media special and able to produce interesting results that older communication and collaboration approaches can’t.
Does Process Prevent Social Media Success?
Social media thrives best in environments where there’s little structure and a great deal of opportunity for discovering and accumulating improvements around the edges. In fact, the world of social media, through endless experiment over the years, hit upon the crucial insight on when it frequently works best: Make the fewest assumptions on how participation should take place by providing an open-ended means for contributing. Stating the point less obliquely: Social media thrives when it does not preclude any form of subsequent participation, whether its local, external, aggregated, in-band, or out-of-band. More on exactly what this means shortly, but the key here is that the less control that’s exerted over how participation can proceed — in all possible dimensions — the richer the eventual outcome.
To put it in plain terms, Luis Suarez recently asked how we should create:
Relevant work life integration that really matches [worker] needs and in an environment where facing complexity and chaos in problem solving, ideation and exception-handling is going to bring innovation further up into a new level:networked, interconnected, collaborative, open, transparent, knowledge sharing based, engaging and empowering on delivering excelling business results and no longer that sheer presence we have just gotten too used to over the course of decades.The main challenge remains though for all businesses out there: what are you doing to help prepare and facilitate that army of socially networked Intra/Entrepreneurs, both internal and external?
One of the most powerful ways to prepare for this future and deal head-on with complexity is with open-ended social business designs that naturally adapt, with a little bit of on-the-fly guidance from users, to the situation around them. This decentralizes the problem across the organization and puts an army at work (nearly everyone) at contributing to the structural and process changes required to continuously adapt to changes in the organization.
Put the simplest way, this is what it means when it’s said that Enterprise 2.0 is highly emergent. Participation in social media channels can rapidly head in exciting new directions by virtue of innovative new and unanticipated types of contribution, not just the “responding in kind” back-and-forth of threaded textual conversation inside activity streams. Instead, contributors can respond with different media types (images, audio, video), different channels altogether (the writing of a blog post that links to and responds to a status update, for example), or by changing the rules completely and adding to the conversation such as in-line applications or new user experiences. Or perhaps live integrating the conversation into another social media environments completely.
Sound esoteric? It’s not and it happens millions of times a day in deeply cross-linked and interconnected social media channels we that use on the Web and in our mobile devices. We add and connect small bits and pieces from all over the Internet into our social conversations all the time. We move from social network to social network, app to app, and connect the two all the time, pasting in videos, connecting blogs and wikis to our social networks, embedding audio, video, and more.
The nature of open-ended in this discussion is vital and nuanced. Social media finally thrived, most arguably through the rise of RSS, which created a sort of “Unix pipe” for the social world. This allowed the fragmented conversations of blogs to be perceived externally as single albeit decentralized conversations. The long-awaited success of syndication gave us simple, straightforward glue to connect our conversations together globally and locally. “Small pieces, loosely joined” was a rallying cry of Web 2.0. We are now witnessing this become the goal for the next generation of enterprise social media, as well as better use of the original generation andenterprise software in general.
As Enterprise 2.0 grows up, there’s a growing understanding that our old systems of record cannot remain isolated from our new systems of engagement. At the same time, to reproduce and encourage a similar wave of innovation inside our organizations, we must be vigilant to ensure that we don’t go down the same well-worn paths that gave us those monolithic and rigid systems of classical IT to begin with. The worry is that if we use the same aging design methods and processes to make our social businesses come to life, it will lead to the same limited outcomes.
Five Strategies for Social Business Emergence