If your organization is planning to successfully transition to social business, there's much for you to learn from these key lessons I have observed over the years. 

Many businesses are implementing social software of some kind in their organizations these days. Typical examples include social intranets, enterprise social networks, or social collaboration applications such as wikis or social content management systems.

Some organizations have been more successful than others with social business while others -- though they still see benefits -- find them less strategic. Yet it's clear today that many organizations are indeed reaping significant rewards in terms of productivity, knowledge retention, innovation and other measures of business performance as they apply social media to the way they work.

Over the last several years, I've also begun to see a pattern emerge from the efforts of those that have started to make the transition to social business. The first is that successful initiatives required sustained effort and commitment across the organization, from top to bottom. Critical mass often plays a role in reaching a satisfactory outcome and seems to lie around the 20% mark, meaning that a fifth of the organization is regularly doing their work in social business channels. This usually marks the permanent change of enough behavior to make it a standard and accepted way of working.

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Other key lessons learned are listed below and represents my personal experience in working with and discussing the issues of social business with dozens of large organizations. Your mileage may vary, but I find that this list resonates strongly with those in the trenches working to improve the way their organizations function circa 2011.

I'd also note that these lessons learned have come at no minor cost of time, effort, and resources and are thus worth considering at length. You will find that they address many of the major decision points about what to focus on and what drives improved outcomes when applying social media within a large organization.

1. Changing behavior is more important -- and harder -- than selecting the tools.

Today's workers are typically very busy and already multitask a great deal. Their attention is typically fragmented across too many tools already. Getting them to change the way they work, particularly if it's deeply ingrained, is often the biggest challenge. Work processes must become more open, shared and transparent in a social business world but many corporate cultures will be the biggest obstacle when there is a belief that controlling information represents power.

Many social business efforts undergo intense efforts to select the right tools but far too little effort in identifying and driving the necessary cultural and behavioral changes that will result in much better outcomes. Many companies are also reticent to invest in large-scale change management efforts based on the cost and perceived potential for disruption. The lesson here is that while the right social technology is a required enabler, proactive behavior change is equally necessary.

2. There is no one platform. There shouldn't be dozens either.

Most organizations I encounter try to select one large social software platform to standardize upon. They are compelling reasons to do this and historically there was usually just one email, portal or unified communication tool. However, social is starting to come at organizations from every avenue these days, even being woven into the fabric of existing appellations from many major software vendors. Example: Content management and document management are just two popular application types that are sprouting social features that will compete directly with any single platform selection. Then there is the social business "stack" of which social media tools proper are just one aspect, with the others being listening, management, analytic, security, compliance, moderation and business intelligence tools that layer on top of the social media components.

Most organizations ultimately end up with a suite of social software, but not one made by a single supplier. A mature social business environment consists of a well-curated set of solutions that makes sense for each part of the business and are reconciled with each other for social identity and interaction.

3. The more control over social you seek, the less you'll have. Design for it.

I'm paraphrasing JP Rangaswami in that the more one attempts to assert command-and-control over social interaction, the more it ends up moving out of reach. Put another way, the network famously routes around censorship. Just like blocking access to parts of the Internet will encourage workers to rely more on their own (often superior) computing devices, the more control asserted over social networks results in the activity, beneficial and otherwise, moving elsewhere.

Smart companies are finding ways to come to grips with their need for legal, HR, compliance and other controls while enabling the need of workers to engage in free flowing discussions that drive business activities. Fortunately, there are now enough examples of even very controlled and unforgiving organizations successfully adopting social software including intelligence agencies, financial services firms and even health care companies.

4. Community needs a help desk. Create a facility that helps and encourages people to engage with each other.

Counter to some of the evangelizing of social business, vibrant and successful social media-based communities are not purely self-organizing. All communities need leaders of one kind or another as well as effective support that provides the social "lubrication" to ensure those that are engaging find what they need in social business channels. Typically this facility is known as community management. And it's fairly typical even today for large organizations to respect this function sufficiently to prioritize it highly enough. Freshman efforts tend to under budget and staff it. However, whenever I encounter an above average social business effort, I typically find deep respect and support for this capability.

5. Social business creates great observable value. Store your activity streams. Make them discoverable. Analyze them.

I've covered the benefits of stored collaboration before, but it's too often under-appreciated as a primary benefit of social business. Sometimes called "working out loud," the activity streams of social media are the center of attention and form a log of everything your organization knows, deeply linked together, just like the Web. But poor enterprise search strategy and even worse analytics often relegate the accumulating knowledge within social business channels to the forgotten corners of the intranet. However, that's where much of the value lies, in letting valuable insights, knowledge and self-documenting processes be rediscovered and reused many times over many years. Ignoring this often means your social business effort will fall out of the strategic business value category.

6. "It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure."

This is a famous phrase by Clay Shirky and is truer now than ever. I consistently see reports from organizations engaging in social business that, after a couple of years, activity streams often end up looking like their email inboxes. In other words, too much to keep track of. But not every social interaction has the same level of social importance or needs to be encountered right when it's created. The newest enterprise social media applications now have "volume controls" and filters to give workers control over what they are watching or alerted to. Social business does indeed unleash a flood of knowledge. The secret to climbing the social media maturity curve is to learn how to see what you need, when you need it.

7. Adoption by itself is not a goal. Tie workforce collaboration directly to high value business activity.

Social business is a means to an end, not the end itself. Getting workers to switch to new communication and collaboration tools serves little purpose if the reason is solely to drive usage of social media. Instead, seeking out challenges within the organization that need addressing is a good start. Situating social media in high intensity areas of worker engagement and putting it in the flow of work is much more likely to result in substantial return on investment than large, horizontal deployments.

However, the reality is that many organizations will only do a general purpose deployment and not seek to solve active business problems or enable existing business processes. Myopia on wide-scale adoption often masks the real utility that social media can bring in achieving better results to shared, team-based activity.

Conclusion

While there are other lessons learned, I see these ones as being some of the most broadly applicable ones that address frequent and recurring obstacles in being effective early on with social media in the workplace. For a strategic view on how IT leaders can enable social business, I encourage you to look at my exploration of the subject. For lines of business looking to be successful on their own, please please look my overview of the social business landscape, which I'll be updating this summer.

 

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