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Running Your Business Like a Community

March 9, 2009

Last year, I wrote a pretty lengthy white paper about Workplace Communities. It was titled “From the Anointed Few to the Collective Many: How Workplace Communities Will Transform Your Business.” In reality, it wasn’t just about workplace communities; it was about all sorts of communities including innovation communities and customer-facing social media initiatives.  Unfortunately, at the time, I was still sort of figuring out how to describe the big picture. I think maybe a lot of us were.

But that’s changing. Barry Libert, noted author and social media thought leader (and our Chairman of the Board) has been presenting for over a year now on his SCORE model – Social, Co-creative, Open, Recognition, Emotive. It’s basically a framework for evaluating organizational readiness for Web 2.0 – not just the technology, but the infinitely more important philosophical and cultural readiness. We’re now building out some workshops and materials to help organizations who may be struggling in some of these areas. The key thing is that this evaluation is not targeted at social media adoption inside the company or outside the company, but at the whole company and all it’s functions. More on this in future blogs and presentations.

I’ve also been having a number of related discussions with Jay Cross and Harold Jarche via Twitter and through blog posts and comments. They are also thinking hard about the “big picture.” In fact, one of Jay’s recent comments should have been the title of my White Paper from last year. Here’s what he said in response to one of my predictions for the future of learning:

You write:
The best companies in 2019 will be running training like a community, a community made up of employees, partners, suppliers, customers, and the public.

My revision:
The best companies in 2019 will be run like a community, a community made up of employees, partners, suppliers, customers, and the public.

Good stuff, right?  So what should have been the title of my White Paper?  Running Your Company Like a Community.  Sounds like a book I should be writing (or maybe just a really good title for a blog post : ).  Ironically, Barry and I are just wrapping up a book called Going Social — should we  change the title?  Anyway, Jay is dead-on (as usual).  And just today, Harold wrote a post on similar theme.

I wanted to add a bit to these ideas with some thoughts and a diagram I’ve been sharing in webinars and in discussions with analysts.

Community Intersection Points

Community Intersection Points

What follows is an explanation of the core concepts in this diagram.

Multiple Community Constituencies

One of the big concepts I’ve been trying to convey lately is the idea of touching all company constituencies with community: publicly-facing communities, customer, partner, supplier, alumni, intern, and of course employee community experiences.  Moreover, the idea that these communties to “overlap.”   Maybe some of the internally-focused blogs might benefit partners?  If so, we should expose that blog to both sets of users.  Maybe a discussion should be shared among customers, employees, and maybe even the public?

Chip Matthes, our Senior Vice President of Advanced Technologies calls these intersection points “semi-permeable membranes.”  It’s a mouthful, but I think an appropriately organic reference both for the way information really flows in and through a company, and for the new reality of companies themselves.  As I’ve discussed extensively in recent webinars, company walls are melting and the very nature of the company is being redefined.  Thinking of “walls” between company silos and between the organization itself and “external” world as “semi-permeable membranes” is a pretty insightful and accurate description of what’s happening to traditional company structures.  Some of these membranes may be more or less permeable than others (both in and out); there may even be structures within structures just as there are structures within structures inside cells.

To date, most analysts and pundits have been focusing on one or two of these constituencies — customers for instance, or employees.  I haven’t seen very many thought leaders who are recognizing the forest for the trees.  This is a real missed opportunity in my opinion because I think that the most value is going to be found at the intersections.  A public community driving innovation for example (as with P&G or Cisco).  Or customers supporting each other with an assist from an internal support group (as with Ford, MSDN and others too numerous to mention).  Or interns and employees working together to decrease time-to-competency by reinventing the on-boarding process.  While I think there is plenty of opportunity in community for homogeneous constituencies, I think we’ll see even more impressive results at the intersections where truly diverse needs and diverse perspectives meet.  This core idea has driven a significant portion of our R&D and product investment over the last year.

Information Continuum

The other key differentiator I always try to convey is our ability to satisfy a company’s complete information continuum.  Yeah, I know, another term in need of explanation.  It’s actually pretty simple – information can be complex or simple, structured or unstructured, social or individual.   We try to address as much of this as we can.  On the formal, structured side, companies need to think about content like multi-year certifications that auto renew and can have different criteria in the “out” years (YARLY).  On the really informal, social side, companies need to provide ratings and comments.  In between, there are dozens of other options – from really structured, interactive, and formal content types like software simulations or instructor-led classes to less structured, more social options like discussions and chat.  Other needs include virtual classroom options in multiple flavors as well as off-the-shelf content, idea sharing, file sharing, and social networking.  This has been another major driver of innovation and productization for Mzinga this past year, and really over the last few years.  We think we have the most complete offerings across multiple content types.

By covering the whole information spectrum, we enable organizations to mix and match content types to match their business needs.  Further, we provide a great deal of flexibility in growing with and adapting to a company’s changing needs over time.  Today, many organizations are still tightly tied to the idea of formal courseware, curriculum, and certifications, but they are beginning to think about social media.  So maybe the right intervention for a company like this is something that looks like a traditional LMS with some social media sprinkled in.  As the organization matures in their acceptance of socual media, we can begin introducing it in a phased way that maps to company needs.   Other companies may be ready for deep community today.  They might lead with social networking, blogs, discussions, and idea sharing solutions, and sprinkle in formal courses and curriculum where required.  We can do this too.

Further, we can provide different collections of functionality for different constituencies within the same “site.”  Maybe the right answer for customer education and engagement is a customer community that is based on discussions and idea sharing while the right answer for employees is to lead with certifications, compliance, virtual classroom, and CEU tracking.  Through our ability to satisfy different constituencies and our ability to span the whole content continuum, we can do all of this within the same solution.  Further, we can share certain elements between constituencies even when the sites have very different site designs, layouts, and branding.

So how does this all come together?  It’s about intersections.  Intersections between content types, intersections between people and content, and intersections between various constituents across and within the extended enterprise.  It’s my belief that organizational data flows depend on a mix of formal, informal, and personal connections.  Connections among these nodes is the basis of actionable information within the organization.  Here again is a visual diagram of these concepts:

Community Intersection Points

Community Intersection Points

I think this is where we’re heading.  It’s not about customer communities or workplace communties.  It’s about recognizing and fostering connections, and enabling information flow and information capture from multiple constituents.  Or to be a bit more succinct, it’s what Jay said ; )  “The best companies in [the future] will be run like a community, a community made up of employees, partners, suppliers, customers, and the public.”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2009 1:54 pm

    Dave, Thank you for this great post. Having experimented with using Wikis, Blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies as a manager, I very much appreciate the following “.. organizational readiness for Web 2.0 – not just the technology, but the infinitely more important philosophical and cultural readiness”.

    IMHO, technology is the easy part of “Running Your Business Like a Community”. Phil, CoachingOurselves.com, management development programs for the enterprise.

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