Social (In The Enterprise) Like a Disease

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Social in the Enterprise isn’t an automatic win.  If you wondered if buzzword compliance was the driving force rather than compelling use cases, Virginia’s article in CMS Wire yesterday [Social Business in 2012: Like Having a Party and No One Shows Up] will likely confirm your suspicions.  Social fever has come to the workplace, and the prognosis so far isn’t great.

First, my personal experience with being in the Social driver’s seat. Then, a case where I’ve seen Social in the Enterprise be the cure instead of the disease.

Back on the Chain Gang

My next Linkedin profile picture

Part of my community service for being between is serving as chair of my condominium association’s communications committee. In that role, I attended a breakfast seminar sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Condominium Managers Association (GPCMA) on social media awareness in January.  There were three speakers:  a lawyer raining down real-world worst-case scenarios who advocates making new residents sign online anti-defamation agreements; an insurance professional explaining that there haven’t been any real test cases so the industry has no benchmarks for insuring against social-media-related liabilities; a social media expert saying “it’s great, you have to do this” but not really explaining why.  The take-away for most people that day was “protect yourself” instead of “let’s make beautiful music together”.

Having worked in the realms of regulation and compliance, I’m conditioned to be cautious (ok, paranoid).  After that meeting, I’ve been reluctant to pull my building into the 21st Century for fear of demonstrable risks, no clear remedies when something bad happens, and a nebulous value proposition.  Some residents are part of a years-old Yahoo! Group already, and observing the level of discourse (ok, lurking) makes me doubly-reluctant.  Still, I feel the pressure from my “board” to do something because of the condominium Council’s broad, vague mandate to “have a website or something”.  So, here’s my plan so far:

Perform an owner/resident survey to assess the interests and capabilities of the community. Making decisions, especially ones that affect my building’s budget, is something I don’t like to do blind.  Also important is generating a participatory feeling: I’ve seen enough good-idea projects flounder because they failed to involve their target communities in the beginning.

Get building notifications to people electronically, via their preferred medium, to supplement the current memo-under-the-door method.  Push isn’t social per se, but it’s a step along the way to getting residents to think about the building as a place online as well as in real life.  Unlike a workplace, I have to deal with inconsistent tools and capabilities–we don’t have email addresses for all of our residents, and there are probably some who don’t even have email at all! I have to accomodate 80-year-old retirees who’ve lived in the building since it opened as well as 20-something professionals moving in tomorrow.  This is definitely a frog I need to boil slowly.

Think a step ahead of the Council.  My mandate is a curious artifact of politics and years of “we should have a website” not leading to results.  The problem is I don’t think a traditional website makes sense anymore.  Leveraging public, cloud-based solutions when I don’t have an IT staff or dedicated community managers on hand is a more sustainable approach, and this is a case where I have no desire to reinvent the wheel with a local website developer.

I sympathize with executives who feel compelled to “do Social” from above and where expectations below come from the not-obviously-relevant personal realms of Facebook and Twitter.  It’s a 360 mismatch of expectation and reality, but there may be a larger problem with smaller networks: Part of Social’s value equation is Metcalfe’s Law, and a corollary would be that there’s some critical mass of active connections required for a social network to sustain itself.  Chat and dating sites (and now MMOs) need to have plenty of free participants in order to make their services worth it to their smaller base of paying customers.  A pure-paid chat site isn’t going to work, and the subscription-only MMO is becoming a rare thing only feasible for the biggest intellectual properties.

What if most companies aren’t big enough to have a self-sustaining network?  Without dedicated evangelists, there may not be enough regular traffic to keep people interested.  That’s one of my big concerns as chair: My building is large as buildings go with almost 600 units, but it’s microscopic from the Social perspective.

Hailing Frequencies Open

I always thought of myself as Spock, but...

Virginia references a Harvard Business Review blogger who seems to confuse collaboration with Social; they are different but not mutually exclusive things. Collaboration’s about projects, about people coming together to produce a result. Social doesn’t have a clearly-identifiable objective; e.g., sharing pictures isn’t an objective, it’s an activity.  On the consumption side, it’s more like discovery than development, and it may produce collaboration as a by-product. I recently saw the two dove-tail nicely.

A former client is switching from Lotus Notes to SharePoint.  They were a big Notes shop with a massive, highly-customized installation.  Despite its age, their Notes platform is still the best collaborative environment I’ve seen professionally, and I miss it when working at other clients with more COTS solutions.  SharePoint itself is a very different beast, and their implementation being COTS is generating lots of head scratching after years with such a custom-fitted solution

These are IT people in Pharma R&D, so it wasn’t surprising when some of the collaboration tool mavens started documenting hacks, work-arounds, and equivalents on their somewhat-informal wiki farm.  This kind of living documentation is a great way to manage the early adoption stage where understanding is low and the delivered functionality changes rapidly.  I love wikis for things like this; it works amazingly well in the world of poorly-documented, frequently-changing MMOs.

Social factored into the equation when people started posting questions and complaints to an internal Twitter-like tool.  Before, most people found those excellent wiki resources by the luck of their acquaintance with a maven or other person in the know.  Now, those “help me” posts would get “follow this link” replies.  I suspect another thing was going on here; the questions probably began shaping what was on the wiki, especially when a new release introduced new bugs or changed functionality.

The mechanism here may be that Social identifies the problem and collaboration solves it, both working much faster than traditional channels. I have to wonder how much the “semi-supported” status and informal, undirected tone of those services contributed to the positive outcome.  It requires a hands-off approach–and trust–from management that I can understand as an information professional.  But, can I embrace it as management in my role as committee chair?  That’s proving to be surprisingly difficult.

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