The other day, I read an article about a new communication technology described as being so revolutionary that “time and space have been annihilated to a very remarkable extent.” The article was from 1860 and it was referring to the Pony Express.

8233080118_0c6c1b1003_m.jpgThat’s awfully high praise for a guy on a horse carrying a mail bag, and it got me wondering: will we always be so gobsmacked by advances in our methods of communication?


Think of the telegraph, the telephone, the fax machine -- each brought with it new vocabulary, new habits, and new social and professional mores. The more advanced the tools, the more complex the implications.

Although it fundamentally changed the way we do business, after a few decades in the mix, the enterprise has pretty well mastered email. We have systems for managing asynchronous communication -- we’re willing to wait for responses. And we put a little extra thought into our words, knowing that they may be archived and resurface well into the future.

Some years later, instant messaging (IM) arrived on the scene to fill some of email’s gaps by providing a tool for quick-turn electronic conversations that tend to be much more organic. We use IM much differently than we use email, but enterprise users seem to have adjusted to the medium -- even if only as a supplement to email.

I believe that the next big advancement in enterprise communication is going to be a bit trickier to master. Social collaboration platforms are beginning to offer the parallel use of synchronous and asynchronous communication -- much of it on view for an entire team, department or company to view.

These developments will demand that the enterprise adapt in order to make the most of their potential. While some of the change will evolve naturally, I believe there is also room for some intelligent design.

Lost in the Woods

One way to integrate social collaboration tools in the enterprise is to make tools available and just wait and see what happens. I think of this as the “If you build it, they will come” approach.

I do not recommend this approach.

Without thoughtful guidance around the implementation of social collaboration tools, you will likely see a lag in adoption -- only your most tech savvy, early adopter-type employees will have the confidence to dive in and stumble their way through the new tool. Over time, you may see your usage statistics rise, but it is unlikely that means collaboration is taking place. Your teams will experience the digital equivalent of being left in the woods without compass.

Without guidance, employees are likely to end up with an understanding of the platform that is an inch deep and a mile wide, making it just as likely that your social collaboration platform will become a distraction as it is that it will become a tool for productivity. In this scenario, your promising new platform runs the risk of becoming an expensive exercise in futility.

Show Them the Way

I am here to tell you that there is a better way.

If you are committed to making the most of social collaboration, you will guide your teams through its implementation with the development of a social governance and communication plan.

The development of this document is an important bridge between the IT department (which probably managed much of the logistics in the development of the platform) and the human resources, communications, marketing and legal departments (which should play significant roles in the implementation and ongoing use of the platform).

This resource should begin at the beginning. It is important for end users to understand why a social collaboration platform is being implemented and how you intend for it to impact their work.

A social governance and communication plan should set clear, consistent guidelines for the use of the platform -- such as when it is appropriate to create a new community; how to post productively; which categories of content should be shared; etc.

Without your enterprise’s guidance on content, a social collaboration platform can quickly become littered with redundant, irrelevant or ill-advised content. This lack of organization creates a variety of problems, including a frustrating amount of “garbage” being returned in search results.

Clear guidelines cut back on unproductive content significantly. It is important that your guidelines align with your corporate culture -- consistency between online and offline expectations go a long way toward making your teams feel comfortable with a new platform, which can impact adoption.

Watch Like a Hawk … In the Beginning

As a new social collaboration platform is launched, it will be important to dedicate resources to monitor and measure how the platform is being used.

As employees become familiar with expectations, it may be necessary to provide reminders and gentle corrections, and to move or delete content that fails to comply with your policy. Over time, you will likely be able to throttle back the level of oversight as users become more familiar with best practices for the platform.

It is important, however, that your social governance and communication plan provide for some level of ongoing monitoring of the platform and auditing of its content -- bad habits can quickly spread when a social collaboration platform is left unattended by the enterprise.

While monitoring is a good start, only metrics can deliver the objective measure of your platform’s performance. Without analytics, you can’t really understand how your platform is being used or how use changes over time. A relatively small investment in analytics can yield powerful data that informs valuable improvements over time.

Make Positive UX a Priority

Often when we talk about user experience (UX), we talk about the inherent experience of using a tool. That kind of UX is certainly critical for social collaboration platforms. But it doesn’t end there.

With the help of a clear social governance and communication plan, social collaboration platforms can improve the UX of working for a company. In this sense, UX is about how the enterprise empowers the productivity of its workforce and provides a satisfying environment for collaboration and innovation.

These things don’t happen by accident. They require thoughtful planning and a commitment to excellent execution. Companies that understand this dynamic stand to maximize productivity and drive true change within their industries.

Maybe they’ll even manage to annihilate time and space.

Image courtesy of Theresa L Wysocki under Creative Commons Attribution License (Flickr)

Editor's Note: Kevin writes frequently about workplace collaboration. To read more, see Enterprise Collaboration in 2012: The Good, The Bad, The ...