When it comes to improving organizational performance, some organizations seem almost obsessed with fixing existing things that are broken, such as existing practices, processes and solutions. In their obsession they often fail to see and act upon even quite obvious opportunities.

One such opportunity that even industry-leading companies miss out on is the opportunity to facilitate rapid sharing of ideas across their dispersed organization by building and nurturing internal communities with the use of social software.

One Example

I know of several industry-leading global companies which have yet to seize this opportunity. One of these companies has stores more or less all over the world, and it is well known for how it plans the stores and the innovative ways in which the product range is displayed in the stores, something which helps to inspire customers to buy more than they originally planned to before they arrived at the store. For this company, it is essential that the know-how about how to display products effectively can be shared across its large number of stores, which is why it has processes for collecting and evaluating ideas, as well as for distributing those ideas to the stores where they can be implemented.

One thing they do in order to distribute the ideas is to produce a magazine which is available both in print and online. The magazine is interesting to read even if you aren't a store owner, sales person or interior designer employed by the company. These processes and solutions work great. Nothing is broken.

Still Room for Improvement

Despite the success of the existing processes and solutions, there are in fact great opportunities to improve the sharing of ideas and best practices, opportunities which -- if seen -- also reveal some weaknesses in the existing processes and solutions:

  1. The product range changes over the year as new products are introduced and old ones modified or removed from the product range. With the existing processes and solutions, ideas related to specific products might not be shared fast enough to allow other stores to benefit from them. For a seasonal product range, which is only sold for a month or two, there is not a chance to share across good ideas in time to use them at other locations with the current processes and solutions.
  2. Far from all good ideas make it to the magazine. There is limited space in a magazine, which means even good ideas need to be left out.
  3. Tacit know-how is hard to capture and transfer using printed and digital publications. Even if the magazine provides contextual information such as why, when and where an idea emerged, the format and lack of two-way interaction and dialog between the sender and the receivers make it harder to implement an idea in a correct way at other stores.

The Business Case for Using Internal Online Communities

There are many reasons why the company should be excited by the opportunities with internal online communities and invest in community management. Just to mention a few:

  1. An individual can almost instantly share an idea with everyone who is interested, no matter if he or she is working in a store in Sweden, the United States, Cyprus, China, Saudi Arabia or anywhere else in the world.
  2. There is no middle-hand editorial group that selects only the ideas that will fit and might work well to present in a magazine. All ideas can be shared and the individuals in the community can decide for themselves which ideas are good and which aren’t. They can also evaluate interesting ideas themselves by real-life experimentation in the stores, as well as collaborate with people from other stores to develop an idea further. Besides, an idea that doesn’t work very well in one store might very well work better or even excellently in another store, especially if you take into account that they often operate in different markets where customers have different preferences and tastes.
  3. The ability to have two-way communication directly with the people who shared an idea increases the chance of a successful communication where the receiver fully understands the idea and how to implement it correctly. Their interaction might also develop into a relationship and spawn offline face-to-face meetings at the store where tacit knowledge and know-how can be transferred.
  4. The social interaction between people within the workforce who share the same purpose or interests can make people who otherwise might feel isolated in their professions (because they are the only one or one of the few with a certain role or specialty at their location) feel more engaged and motivated as their social and professional identities are strengthened by the interaction with other members of the community.

In this case, there seems to be an obvious business case for building an internal online community for sales people and interior designers working in stores.

The implementation can be as easy as providing an online space for people to connect, share stuff and have conversions. The space can have a blog where interior designers and sales people working in the stores can blog about their ideas and let other interior designers and sales people comment on them, no matter which store they work at or in what country. To present their ideas in a richer way that provides more context than limited amounts of text and imagery in a magazine, they can use smartphones to shoot and upload photos and videos. With such a simple solution, a store can almost immediately share an idea on how to arrange some of the seasonal products to all other stores, and the other stores can implement the idea already the next day.

Yet, surprisingly not much has been done to support the building of internal online communities and using social software to facilitate interaction, sharing and conversations between the people working at the many stores.

Final Thoughts

Virtually every company I talk to that has a geographically-dispersed organization and workforce confess, when I ask people such as the CIO’s or communication officers about it, that sharing of information and knowledge horizontally across locations and units isn’t really happening. Often there is neither an infrastructure nor process or any tradition to do so.

When asked about it, they often recognize that sharing isn't working and that it is a problem, but they don’t turn this understanding into action. Sometimes it is because they are simply used to things being this way. Sometimes it is because they primarily focus on fixing existing things that have been broken. If it's not broken, why fix it?

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