For several years now, organizations — across industries — have been shifting away from top-down, command-and-control organizational structures in recognition that employees need to feel more empowered and autonomous in order to increase motivation and engagement. 

Hand-in-hand with this trend goes the growth in collaboration initiatives, and the rise of new social and collaborative technologies that support a more open, interactive and fluid org structure. These tools bring people together from across the business in ad hoc teams to solve a particular problem or need, leveraging the different skills and perspectives of the various individuals.

But that's only part of the story.

A Look at the Bigger Picture

Being a collaborative organization is about much more than breaking down the barriers between different parts of your business. You also need to look at the barriers that surround your business. 

No business operates in a vacuum, and a host of different external parties are crucial to your success: from the customers who buy your services, to the partners in your supply chain, to the contract staff who fill shortfalls in your skillset. The collaborative culture needs to extend to the way we engage and interact with these parties too — and while this may seem quite obvious, it is a much harder thing to do well than the internal piece of the puzzle.

While it’s partly about transparency and sharing information with customers and partners — about their transactions, about service availability, about product information or your business or product strategy, for example — it's mainly about improving the relationship, about enabling a two-way interaction that is more than skin-deep. 

This means involving customers and partners in your decision-making processes, engaging them in improving the products and services you offer, and ensuring you maintain the communications channel throughout, so that they see the impact they’ve made, and feel a part of the change. Not only can this improve customer loyalty, but it helps drive momentum around the change within your organization, too — "this is something that our customers are asking for, we know that they want it, and this will make us more valuable to them."

Creating an Interactive Community

Online community platforms can support this approach. Organizations can engage directly with community members, while also providing a peer support platform. These share many of the features and characteristics of internal social collaboration platforms, but tend to focus more on integration with social media platforms, for example, and often less on the people relationship elements that characterize enterprise social networks.

In practice, many organizations invest in externally-facing communities before they have fully addressed their internal collaboration challenges, driven by the need to improve their customer engagement levels or reduce their support costs. While I understand the reasoning behind this, the risk of this approach is that it is seen to be just another marketing channel, rather than effecting a wholesale change in the way the organization engages its customers. 

It’s not enough to have the marketing team and/or one or two community managers holding the fort on your community: the community needs to be an extension of the overall workings of the business. Employees across the business need to be involved, offering input and engaging with community members in a natural, unforced way.

This can be scary for organizations that have not already embraced collaborative working across their employee base and is unlikely to be successful. A customer or partner community that simply extends your internal collaborative culture to include your customers and partners will come across as sincere and convincing, and this will be reflected back in your community engagement levels.