Seven Lessons Learned on Social Business

8 minute read
Dion Hinchcliffe avatar

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 intheir organizations these days. Typical examples include socialintranets, enterprise social networks, or social collaborationapplications such as wikis or social content management systems.

Someorganizations have been more successful than others with socialbusiness while others -- though they still see benefits -- find themless strategic. Yet it's clear today that many organizations are indeedreaping significant rewards in terms of productivity, knowledgeretention, innovation and other measures of business performance asthey apply social media to the way they work.

Over the lastseveral years, I've also begun to see a pattern emerge from the effortsof those that have started to make the transition to social business.The first is that successful initiatives required sustained effort andcommitment across the organization, from top to bottom. Critical massoften plays a role in reaching a satisfactory outcome and seems to liearound the 20% mark, meaning that a fifth of the organization isregularly doing their work in social business channels. This usuallymarks the permanent change of enough behavior to make it a standard andaccepted way of working.

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Other key lessonslearned are listed below and represents my personal experience inworking with and discussing the issues of social business with dozens oflarge organizations.Your mileage may vary, but I find that this listresonates strongly with those in the trenches working to improve the waytheir organizations function circa 2011.

I'd also note that theselessons learned have come at no minor cost of time, effort, andresources and are thus worth considering at length.You will find thatthey address many of the major decision points about what to focus onand what drives improved outcomes when applying social media within alarge organization.

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

Today'sworkers 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 deeplyingrained, is often the biggest challenge. Work processes must becomemore open, shared and transparent in a social business world but manycorporate cultures will be the biggest obstacle when there is a beliefthat controlling information represents power.

Many social businessefforts undergo intense efforts to select the right tools but far toolittle effort in identifying and driving the necessary cultural andbehavioral changes that will result in much better outcomes. Manycompanies are also reticent to invest in large-scale change managementefforts based on the cost and perceived potential for disruption.Thelesson here is that while the right social technology is a requiredenabler, proactive behavior change is equally necessary.

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

Mostorganizations I encounter try to select one large social softwareplatform to standardize upon.They are compelling reasons to do thisand historically there was usually just one email, portal or unifiedcommunication tool.However, social is starting to come atorganizations from every avenue these days, even being woven into thefabric of existing appellations from many major software vendors.Example: Content management and document management are just two popularapplication types that are sprouting social features that will competedirectly with any single platform selection. Then there is the socialbusiness "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 ontop of the social media components.

Most organizations ultimately end upwith a suite of social software, but not one made by a single supplier.A mature social business environment consists of a well-curated set ofsolutions that makes sense for each part of the business and arereconciled 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'mparaphrasing JP Rangaswami in that the more one attempts to assertcommand-and-control over social interaction, the more it ends up movingout of reach. Put another way, the network famously routes aroundcensorship. Just like blocking access to parts of the Internet willencourage workers to rely more on their own (often superior) computingdevices, the more control asserted over social networks results in theactivity, beneficial and otherwise, moving elsewhere.

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

Learning Opportunities

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

Counterto some of the evangelizing of social business, vibrant and successfulsocial media-based communities are not purely self-organizing. Allcommunities need leaders of one kind or another as well as effectivesupport that provides the social "lubrication" to ensure those that areengaging find what they need in social business channels. Typically thisfacility is known as community management.And it's fairly typical even today for large organizations to respectthis function sufficiently to prioritize it highly enough. Freshmanefforts tend to under budget and staff it.However, whenever Iencounter an above average social business effort, I typically find deeprespect 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 collaborationbefore, but it's too often under-appreciated as a primary benefit ofsocial business. Sometimes called "working out loud," the activitystreams of social media are the center of attention and form a log ofeverything your organization knows, deeply linked together, just likethe Web. But poor enterprise search strategy and even worse analyticsoften relegate the accumulating knowledge within social businesschannels to the forgotten corners of the intranet. However, that's wheremuch of the value lies, in letting valuable insights, knowledge andself-documenting processes be rediscovered and reused many times overmany years. Ignoring this often means your social business effort willfall out of the strategic business value category.

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

Thisis a famous phrase by Clay Shirky and is truer now than ever. Iconsistently see reports from organizations engaging in social businessthat, after a couple of years, activity streams often end up lookinglike their email inboxes. In other words, too much to keep track of. Butnot every social interaction has the same level of social importance orneeds to be encountered right when it's created. The newest enterprisesocial media applications now have "volume controls" and filters to giveworkers control over what they are watching or alerted to. Socialbusiness does indeed unleash a flood of knowledge. The secret toclimbing the social media maturity curve is to learn how to see what youneed, when you need it.

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

Socialbusiness is a means to an end, not the end itself. Getting workers toswitch to new communication and collaboration tools serves littlepurpose if the reason is solely to drive usage of social media. Instead,seeking out challenges within the organization that need addressing is agood start.Situating social media in high intensity areas of workerengagement and putting it in the flow of work is much more likely toresult in substantial return on investment than large, horizontaldeployments.

However, the reality is that many organizations will onlydo a general purpose deployment and not seek to solve active businessproblems or enable existing business processes. Myopia on wide-scaleadoption often masks the real utility that social media can bring inachieving better results to shared, team-based activity.


Whilethere are other lessons learned, I see these ones as being some of themost broadly applicable ones that address frequent and recurringobstacles in being effective early on with social media in theworkplace.For a strategic view on how IT leaders can enable socialbusiness, 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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About the author

Dion Hinchcliffe

Dion Hinchcliffe is currently ranked as one of the top digital employee experience experts in the world. He is a bestselling book author, frequent keynote speaker, analyst, futurist, and strategy expert based in Washington, DC.

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