Innovative communication techniques grouped together and
interchangeably labeled social computing, social software,
social media, Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 (E2.0), need to shape
the way companies do business. (For more, see An Introduction to Web 2.0 and Web 2.0 Crucial to New Information Workplace.)
Senior managers who learn to let
E2.0 concepts have a life of their own will benefit from
enhanced knowledge sharing and stronger communities within
their companies. These communities reinforce interactions
within work groups and support collaboration and
Benefits for the Enterprise
People form communities based on shared interests. Once the
community is in place, it becomes a greenhouse for the
development of ideas and the distribution of information,
attracting all those who wish to participate.
exchange of ideas is essential to the success of difficult
initiatives, including software architecture and design,
project management and organizational transformation. Tools
such as social networking sites, discussion groups and wikis
enable people to connect with one another virtually while
enhancing and extending face-to-face interaction. Using these
tools, traditional hierarchies and structures in the company
move into the background as the community emerges, removing
many of the inhibitors of information exchange.
seeing improved collaboration surrounding creation of user
groups (around development languages) and complex design (in
globally distributed teams). In each case, participants from
otherwise isolated parts of the company share problems and
solutions, reducing redundancy and increasing common
Peter Drucker writes extensively about innovation as a subtle
reexamination of context rather than mountaintop epiphanies.
Most companies that take an innovative turn spot
something—an opportunity—that offers a natural
extension of the status quo.
Chris Zook recommends searching
for “undeveloped adjacencies,” or unexploited capabilities in
the organization that can be developed into new, repeatable
processes. Successful corporate innovation capitalizes on
existing assets and ideas combined in new ways. Use of social
computing creates a new stage for innovation, where ideas are
more easily exposed and patterns spotted. As communities work
out the kinks of new ideas in public forums, innovative
thinking coalesces and ownership/leadership emerges. Amazon
uses social computing (especially wikis) extensively in the
development of new features for Amazon.com. Virtual teams form
around seeds of ideas, take ownership and drive the idea into a
Increased productivity is usually the result of more efficient
access to correct information. This reduces the time needed
during discovery phases and troubleshooting. For software
development, access to shared solutions and knowledgeable
people speeds time to delivery. For call-center environments,
the ability to find information and communicate in real time
with coworkers shortens call time. For design scenarios,
collaborative work on shared artifacts accelerates the early
stages of a project and simplifies future iterations.
scenarios, the collective intelligence of the community leads
to answers more quickly. As more questions are answered,
repeatability increases. As new workers enter the company,
there is a baseline of knowledge to get them ramped up more
effectively. Much of that knowledge is available as content
within the social computing infrastructure.
Improved Employee Relations and
An employee who happily engages with their coworkers and the
company is usually a great thing. They have a lower rate of
attrition, are generally more productive and have a better
sense of the overall objectives of the company. Social
computing allows employees to connect more easily with one
another and with the corporation as a whole. Shared connections
also enhance face-to-face interactions and the sense of
belonging to the wider corporate community. New friendships
emerge, common interests are identified and cohesion increases
as users interact with one another around similar goals. Social
networks, blogs and wikis create a forum for the voice of the
employee to be heard and for their ideas to be validated. They
have the ability to directly influence decisions within the
organization, and their level of engagement increases.
Attracting and Keeping Younger Workers
Much has been made of the need to update enterprise technology
to attract younger workers. These workers carry expectations of
highly interactive, mobile and ubiquitous computing into the
workplace. It’s how they interact with the world, and they have
become highly productive (and a bit distracted) by it. These
people expect high interpersonal connectivity and create
solutions to problems from fragments of interaction.
just about younger workers, though. Although that demographic
has more time to experiment and, as a result, build facility
more quickly, people of all ages have experience with a broad
range of social computing devices and applications. Recent
studies at Stanford’s Communication between Humans and
Interactive Media (CHIMe) lab suggest that adaptability has
more to do with new cognitive types that are not age-specific.
Humans are highly efficient parallel processors, even though
most of our information worker applications force them into a
narrow box. The challenge for IT departments is to design
applications that take advantage of these human capabilities on
top of an infrastructure that is strained to support them.
Promotion and Public Relations
Many companies are starting to use public-facing social
computing as a means of projecting brand. From executive blogs
(such as Marriott’s and General Motors’) to consumer
communities (such as Pepperidge Farm’s and Wells Fargo’s),
companies are trying their hand at increasing customer loyalty
in innovative ways. This is tricky if not done carefully,
though. An executive blog that is obviously written by the PR
department will alienate people. Forced “community” experiences
will immediately feel artificial or opportunistic.
In the case
of Pepperidge Farm, their well-crafted “Connections” initiative
targets a specific demographic (professional women with
homemaker sensibilities) and builds on a theme of friendship.
The connection to the company’s product is tangential:
Obviously, a selection of Pepperidge Farm goodies would be a
natural addition to a gathering of friends. Rather than build
in any social computing functionality to their site, Pepperidge
Farm suggests ways to use some of the most common applications
(photo sharing, blogging) to connect with friends.
companies are creating a presence for themselves using social
networking sites like Facebook.com, which have also proven to
be a fertile ground for political candidates and musicians to
get their message out.
Managing the Social Organization
Observing Without Disturbing
The attraction of social computing is also its challenge. It
thrives because it is highly participatory, self-defining,
self-directing, emergent and viral. It does not grow along a
prescribed axis. Communities form around seeds of ideas that
grow over time into larger patterns. If a group senses that it
is being observed (and relied upon for output), there is the
danger that interactions will become too self-conscious.
Use of social computing cannot be mandated; it must simply
be facilitated. Once the mechanics are in place to support
social computing, the content produced through user interaction
is treated like other content in the organization. It must be
indexed and searchable, making it easy for users to discover
information and engage with it. Reasonable arm’s length
policies regarding content and style will also allow the voice
of the group to reach equilibrium on its own. In order to
achieve the best results, enterprise social computing must
retain the perceived freedom of the Web.
Provide Executive Leadership, But Stay out of the
CIOs are responsible for making sure that the corporate
environment supports the paradigm shifts accompanying E2.0.
They are responsible for infrastructure investments that
constitute the E2.0 platform. They must establish standards and
enforce boundaries when required. They may even take part in
the communities as they emerge. But CIOs must also realize that
their direct presence in those communities can have a muting
effect (the celebrity factor).
One way for senior executives to
be effectively engaged with E2.0 is to keep active blogs of
their own. This will provide IT staff with valuable insights
into their leadership. At the end of the day, CIOs set
strategic directions that are “worked out” in the E2.0
communities populated by their employees.
Chris Howard is vice president and director of the
Executive Advisory Program at the Burton Group. He is a former
university professor with more that 16 years of IT consulting