Although Enterprise 2.0 and social business have been hot topics among practitioners and more forward-thinking organizations for some time now, it seems like we’ve crossed a tipping point of sorts: I’ve encountered very few organizations in any industry over the last few months that aren’t at least beginning to dabble in E2.0.

And amidst this surging momentum for all things E2.0, the idea of community is in danger of becoming the next content, or process, or case, terms whose proper (and bounded) meanings have been blurred to the point that they can mean almost anything to almost anyone.

Which is unfortunate, because to me, community is perhaps the most important concept for social business and E2.0, even more so than the use of E2.0 tools, capabilities or applications (my apologies to Dr. McAfee).

Let me share a recent experience that really brought the importance of community for E2.0 home for me.

Attention to Detail

I was on site for a few days of interviews recently with a wonderful client. They’re a global manufacturing company, and everything about the organization is superlative: the people seem happy, the facilities are modern and inviting, and, while their systems and processes aren’t perfect under the hood, they’re tackling their areas for improvement with zest and forethought.

During a bio break between interviews, I happened to notice that there was a cartoon of a bee right smack in the center of each urinal -- which I later found out was to encourage users to aim for the optimal place in the urinal to prevent splash-back and therefore keep the bathroom cleaner longer and with less effort.

The more I reflected on this client and tried to articulate why they were so successful, I kept coming back to those bees in the urinals: any company that took the time to make their bathrooms more inviting, pleasant and usable for employees was probably the kind of company that cared for them in other ways, too.

And that was definitely true of this client. From the layout of the work environment and the availability of recreational space, the beauty of the art and usability of the furnishings, to their deep commitment to professional development and mentoring, they had done their best to shape all aspects of the employee experience to encourage optimal performance.

Or to put it another way, they had created a community for their employees that provided the context within which each employee could achieve success for themselves (and ultimately the organization as a whole).

An Organizing Principle

You may be saying to yourself, “Bees in the urinals -- so what? There are lots of companies that pay lip service to caring for employees, who spend tons of money on this kind of stuff and are still terrible to work for.”

And I would agree, but I would attribute the difference to providing a disjointed collection of services versus creating a community, i.e., a holistic approach to delivering services that are centered on the users and their relationships.

I see the role of community in social business in much the same way: just as bees in the urinals by themselves don’t make a company a great place to work, the deployment of a microblogging tool or wiki doesn’t make your enterprise social. Individual elements like these only become effective and meaningful when deployed in the service of some larger context, which for me is the very essence of a community.

The Final Word

In the end, without the notion of community, social business or E2.0 initiatives devolve into mere conglomerations of tools and applications that give employees little potential to be truly social and collaborate effectively.

Organizations that fail to foster a community will certainly be able to implement some E2.0 capabilities. But for my money, they’ll never realize the full depth of what E2.0 can deliver under the right circumstances, when an organization takes the time to think bigger and to consider both the broader purpose of all these tools as well as the larger (largely human) context for their use: a community of people working together.

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