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 least likely 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 and enterprise 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
I've been exploring the potential of connecting agile processes to social business recently because because of these issues, and because the two subjects have much in common. Both fields are major transitions in the way work is accomplished and have had significant headwind despite making real and sustained progress. The lessons ultimately seems to be this: Meaningful social business transformation won't employ the same old methods and processes that came before. Otherwise it will represent marginal improvement instead of a meaningful and impactful re-imagining of how we work and engage with each other and the world.
How do we get there then? I'll save the discussion for how we improve social business implementation processes for another time. Instead, I'd like to focus here on how to directly encourage emergence and open-endedness in the social business environment itself. As part of what's often called social business design. It's something that communities do in real-time now and in ways we could never imagine at the outset. Here's some of the ways that I've found to get there:
1. Be liberal in accepting forms of participation. While many Enterprise 2.0 products or projects are actually disabling many types of rich media and embedded applications, I believe that is a serious mistake. How best to resolve the security issues of connecting the thousands of different types of active content that can be embedded in social media is an open question, though many solutions now exist and formalizing the approval process with social networking apps is a step in the right direction. But what we absolutely can't do is lock down social collaboration to a limited and narrow range consisting primarily of text and perhaps some images. True collaboration, the most useful collaboration, consists of types and modes of participation you never anticipated up front. We must enable them, not constrain them.
2. Assume and support new modes of use. If a blog, wiki, or social network ends up becoming a vital part of a business process, be ready to support it to the level that part of the business requires. That means operationally, social media must get ready to run the business, the whole five 9s, and so on. It also means that business users will create -- through the process of working through social media via emergent experimentation -- operational business solutions that IT must support (i.e. when the wiki page tracking a collaborative effort suddenly becomes the de facto project management tool.) This absolutely must be not only OK, but warmly welcomed if we are to see the kinds of meaningful social business engagement that's possible. It's always amazed me that some of the most compelling Enterprise 2.0 solutions I've seen are ones that regular users on the ground "invented" by re-purposing or cobbling together from the bits and pieces of social media tools over time while structure and process accumulated. Social business becomes the "connective collaborative fabric" for the enterprise as my industry colleague Sameer Patel said recently.
3. "New modes of use" means deep connection between all systems, all audiences. Do not proceed in your work thinking that Enterprise 2.0 is only about self-contained systems. Like the Web, it consists of deeply linked systems of systems. Sometimes this connection is by simple links, but increasingly it's by direct integration of data. The technology to make this happen in a standard way is now here, let's connect our systems and our data. No more copy and pasting from the systems of record. Live business data must be surrounded by collaboration in context. And while we're at it, we must connect with everyone else. There really is only a little bit of useful distinction between internal social media and external. While we must retain those for a number of reasons, almost any situated outcome that's truly useful will involve a cross-section of customers, partners, and workers.
4. Enable social discovery. While many manifestations of social media, such as activity streams, naturally make on-the-fly discovery of knowledge and information easier, spontaneous, and even serendipitous, it's not nearly enough by itself to enable widespread emergent reuse. I've argued for years that federated search across all enterprise social "silos" based on the same algorithms that drive the Web is one of the primary solutions to ensure the open work of Enterprise 2.0 is findable, reusable, and has high leverage. However, it's also not sufficient. In the same way that today's social Web has countless highly innovative mechanisms for discovering content, the ability for users, teams, departments and so to bring new solutions to the table is key. Which brings us to...
5. Open your social data. Everything should be syndicated. Most social functionality should be wrapped in OpenSocial so it can be exported across the enterprise and embedded on the intranet and elsewhere. Your Enterprise 2.0 systems should have good, well supported APIs with good documentation. The APIs should be open and active, and not just reluctantly either, but proactively with everyone in the organization being actively encouraged to use them to connect their apps and people together into a rich and vibrant ecosystem of social business. The alternative is to continue to have our silos of communication, information, and departments. It should be a simple choice, although realizing it will require lots of hard work, experimentation, and sustained commitment.
Are these all of the ways to enable emergence with social business? Not by a long shot. But they are a powerful start and one that I'll stand by as ultimately being present in the most impressive examples of successful Enterprise 2.0 and social business. I fully realize that for some, this discussion might appear too abstract; I'll explore more specific and real-world examples of these strategies in future posts.
So these are some of the essential properties of a working social business environment to grow in the necessary but unplanned directions they need to arrive at the outcomes that are possible. I'll explore how I believe we can greatly improve the process of social business solution design, implementation, and rollout soon without losing many of the traditional aspects that we'd like to retain, including predictability, repeatability, and resource management.