by Esther Schindler

The Unspoken Problem with Enterprise Online Communities

Apr 09, 20085 mins

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.)

But that’s an old problem, one that I’ve dealt with many times in 20+ years of online community involvement. A larger challenge in developing enterprise social networks and collaborative environments—and one that I confess both interests and amuses me—is one of participant altitude and personal ego.

Many business executives and IT managers are familiar with the phenomenon whereby their just-in-passing thought (“Maybe the product should have a whizbang feature?”) percolates to the top of the software requirements priority list—much to their astonishment. (See Five Things IT Managers Should Know About Software Requirements for more about this.) That’ll be true in any venue, whether the conference room or the online community. It’ll even be true if the boss isn’t participating, but if the enterprise community thinks she might. (Quick test: if your boss follows you on Twitter, does it change your likelihood to write, “Don’t feel like doing much today. May blow off the afternoon”? [Aside: Just kidding, Abbie. I’d never do that.])

But aside from the BigBrotherish feeling is whether a manager comes to depend on the authority of his voice—that is, the expectation that others listen to your opinion—and whether people would still listen as carefully if the exec is hidden behind an avatar on a social network. Will your “bright idea” be perceived to be as bright if you sign in as TearJerkerFan instead of Grand Poo-bah? Would you see that as a Good Thing or an ego-bruise?

I wish IBM all the best with its social network strategy, and I hope it succeeds. (You know me; I hope every online community will succeed.) However, I’m interested to see how IBM—and, more importantly, the community—addresses these challenges.