The Social Enterprise – the internal view

May 15, 2009
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20848512 Everywhere you turn today you hear about the social web, social media, social networks and social CRM. The focus is most often outward facing when applied to business and I’ve been a little guilty of that on my blog as well. For this post I want to turn the lens internal for a little while and take a look at some of the kinds of projects companies can do to improve the way their employees interact and produce value. There are several types of social initiatives that can produce very good results internally and help to improve productivity, capture and share knowledge and reduce waste / costs.

First lets look at collaboration. Collaboration is not a new subject but some interesting new tools and processes are evolving out of Web 2.0. Email was one of the first Internet enabled collaboration tools and its overuse is threatening its effectiveness. Employees use email for everything, they share files, work on joint docs, broadcast information and carry on conversation (asynchronous though they be). I remember one of the start ups I was involved with a few year ago that had such a corrupted email culture of overuse that I caught an employee sending me an email from the very next offi

20848512 Everywhere you turn today you hear about the social web, social media, social networks and social CRM. The focus is most often outward facing when applied to business and I’ve been a little guilty of that on my blog as well. For this post I want to turn the lens internal for a little while and take a look at some of the kinds of projects companies can do to improve the way their employees interact and produce value. There are several types of social initiatives that can produce very good results internally and help to improve productivity, capture and share knowledge and reduce waste / costs.

First lets look at collaboration. Collaboration is not a new subject but some interesting new tools and processes are evolving out of Web 2.0. Email was one of the first Internet enabled collaboration tools and its overuse is threatening its effectiveness. Employees use email for everything, they share files, work on joint docs, broadcast information and carry on conversation (asynchronous though they be). I remember one of the start ups I was involved with a few year ago that had such a corrupted email culture of overuse that I caught an employee sending me an email from the very next office…no, no files attached or information that I needed written, it was in place of walking maybe 10 feet total to have a conversation. Email for me now has such a high noise level because of the flood of cc or bcc’s that I receive that are of no use or interest to me that I often miss the one important email amongst the 100’s of useless ones. OK, sorry for the rant, anyway my point is that email is ineffective for a lot of the collaboration that is needed. For synchronous conversations that are 1:1 IM has become the tool of choice for many and it does a credible job for quick information exchange. The internal tool that is gaining in popularity (and personally I think has real promise for collaboration) is private label microblogging. The functionality is much like Twitter but is restricted to employees (and contractors if you choose). The microblogging tool enables both synchronous and asynchronous communication, can be used very effectively to broadcast information and can provide direct private messages as well as open public communication. The fact that the size of the messages are short is a big plus over email for many things. Internally at IDC we have used the microblogging tool Yammer since last October with very good results and adoption. Yammer has the capability to attach files if you choose so that’s an added feature over public microblogs like Twitter. Providing links to useful or interesting information, sharing what projects you’re working on and asking questions of the broader group tends to break down silos and help draw employees together to assist others, provide answers, and even get involved in projects where they add value (projects which might very well have gone unnoticed before). In some ways tools like this become a virtual water cooler in todays modern mobile or widely dispersed workforce.

Joint or collaborative projects carry their own set of issues for many companies. Sharing a joint deliverable can be difficult and frustrating if there’s not a system and process in place. Content management systems (CMS) were designed more for the collection and management of content rather than the co-creation of deliverables. Email is a poor tool for these types of projects as there seem to always be version management issues. One simple but relatively effective solution is to use an online set of productivity tools that allow all project participants access to the deliverables and the ability to control the permission levels from view only to edit / create. Tools like Google Docs, Zoho and ThinkFree have those capabilities and are reasonably compatible with the prevalent authoring tools like MS Office. There are also project collaboration tools that have shared workspaces that work well for collaborative projects (both internal and external). Oracle BeeHive, IBM’s Lotus, Clarizen, etc. all have the capability to provide joint workspaces.

Capturing and sharing employees knowledge can be challenging. With the churn caused by our current economy it is even more critical to provide a way to capture business processes, job knowledge, knowledge about clients, or what we could call Tribal Knowledge, keep it current and shared across all employees. CMS’s were designed to manage content, not facilitate knowledge capture and sharing. Wiki’s can provide a powerful alternative for capturing and sharing the tribal knowledge. There are free or almost free alternatives as well as good Wiki capabilities in e2.0 platforms like HiveLive, Jive or Mzinga. Using crowdsourcing and the wisdom of crowds concept to get content and maintain high quality, Wiki’s give employees the opportunity to contribute to the companies knowledge base actively, directly and with a very simple process. The use of Wiki’s could extend to all types of company knowledge capture efforts. In addition to Wiki’s and using very similar concepts, ideasourcing, which has really evolved as a customer idea capture / management tool could be used internally as well. In the simplest form an ideasourcing tool could become the company suggestion box, capturing and rating employee input about all sorts of ideas for general company improvement. Taking this further though the ideasourcing tool could be used a way to solve business problems by asking for broader input on things like cost cutting ideas, growth ideas, ideas on innovations, product ideas, service and customer service ideas, etc. Broadening the base of employee involvement in problem solving offers multiple benefits from improving morale through better employee engagement (building community) to capturing innovative ideas that would never surface under other problem solving methods. Ideasourcing is a great way to start building customer engagement and community (arguably the most effective way), used internally it has the same impact. The level of transparency a process designed around internal ideasourcing should lead to and the broad empowerment that can result from engaging all employees creates employee community. Community could be increased at this point by improving or deploying a company networking solution (which could be a simple as a closed LinkedIn group).

We’re bombarded with data all the time. Depending on the way that data flows to us, it often can be unmanageable and turn into noise (see my comment on email above for example). Part of the problem in my opinion is using the wrong vehicle for some types of information. Sure you can blast out everything in email newsletters or post on corporate Intranet sites, one a push method and the other a pull approach. I suggest there’s a much more effective way to share much of the same info. Why not use company blogs with RSS capabilities to allow employees to opt into the information that they find useful? Granted some compliance issues would drive certain types of information to be handled differently but for the bulk of data the RSS feed / internal blog could work as a more effective channel.  

I’ve recently posted on social analytics so I won’t rehash it in this post, but I do see many internal ways to apply the concept to very good return including locating real expertise among employees, understanding influence and connectivity (which could be very useful in increasing sales, customer satisfaction, damage control when someone leaves the company, etc.), and understanding / measuring employee sentiment (loyalty, morale, etc.). I’m also not going to go into ways to implement the tools listed here, I’ve started a series of post on an iterative project methodology that could be used to effectively rollout internal initiatives. I will, however reenforce one very critical concept, that is that the technology and tools around social enterprise are secondary to culture change. Change management must be the keystone in any social enterprise initiative or the project stands a much lower chance of success. The good news is that many times the first initiatives are actually employee initiated and can have a great deal of employee support. Process of course, also has to change but that’s a part of the project (and hopefully documented on a Wiki).