The Unspoken Problem with Enterprise Online Communities

I love the idea of IBM's new social network, which it announced this week at the IBM IMPACT 2008 conference in Las Vegas. The social network, which aims to advance service oriented architectures (SOA), intends to connect technologists and business professionals in various roles, such as business analyst, college professor, enterprise architect and software developer. It also takes advantage of existing social networks like LinkedIn , Facebook and Second Life. Using both online and in-person forums, says the company, the social network is designed to help members build skills and share best practices.

IBM is clearly serious about online community, and has the right idea. They aren't just listening and lurking; they're taking action based on community input. For instance, they just launched an SOA Jam, intended to get the people whose skin is in the SOA game to define the priorities. "The community is driving what happens next," said Sandy Carter, vice president of IBM SOA and WebSphere marketing, strategy and channels. Nor is this wholly new to IBM; the company's involvement in Second Life was the result of suggestions that came out of an earlier Innovations Jam, she told me.

Shiny. But every time I watch someone try to put together a corporate-focused online community, I worry about the ways it can go wrong.

One issue is motivating participants to chime in or at least the ones you had in mind. I'm active in a lot of online communities, or at least a lurker, and I'm always searching for more places to hang out. I've found that it's easy to get certain sets of people to gather and shoot the technical breeze, but surprisingly hard to create community among others. Software developers, for example, are so willing to share experiences and wisdom that you can't throw an empty beer bottle without finding a forum or social network devoted to their needs or a tiny subset thereof (such as a group for Apple Bluetooth programming). I've always believes that it's because programming (and associated endeavors such as QA testing) is inherently both a creative and solitary activity that also has a long history of collaboration.

Not every career path is like that. It's difficult to find an online community for, say, network administrators, much less specialty variations thereof (such as the people who sweat at night about performance tuning). Surely they get together somewhere, but I haven't found them. For whatever reason, these folks don't feel as strong a desire to schmooze with each other, much less to say, "Hey, let's brainstorm the ultimate performance monitoring tool; what would it look like?" Similarly, some people (such as CIOs) say they're too busy to participate in such things.

Among the reasons that some "roles" don't have a tropism towards social network is that they worry about things that extend beyond the community, such as anonymity, accountability and reputation. The higher up you go in the corporate food chain, the more likely it is for the participant to worry about the consequences of what's shared publicly. Some online communities address this by permitting anonymous posts (so that a participant can feel safe in writing "Is it time for me to leave my job?"); others do so with avatars that cloud identity (so a forum member could write comfortably, "We're having a lot of problems with security at our company; I need advice" without advertising which company has vulnerabilities). The flip side of that solution is that anonymity and disguise makes it just a little too easy for someone to act like a jerk, a problem we've struggled with here at's Advice & Opinion site. (I think I shall refrain from examples.)

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