In "Reflections of a Siamese Twin" John Ralston Saul argues that the idea of a country is the most crucial element of nationhood. If you look at the facts of the Canadian condition -- it's proximity to the United States, vast geography and the absence of a dominant culture -- make the probability of Canadian nationhood seem remote. Yet that is not the reality. Saul believes that "an idea could in practical terms be stronger than facts, is not an expression of sentiment or emotion or even aspiration. All of these imponderables do exist in each of us and, providing they don't dominate our actions, are necessary, even positive, elements. But an idea is quite another matter. It is something solid; far more solid than the squalid little herds of facts so often marshaled to justify what is presented as the inevitable."
Saul concludes that, "Canada is an idea or it does not exist." This premise, I would argue, is as true for organizations as nations. In order for organizations to be successful with social media they have to shift from a mechanistic view of the organization (and its products and services) to one that embraces the notions of organization as idea.
Last month Ross Mayfield wrote a compelling piece (The Social CRM Iceberg) arguing that in order for Social CRM to be successful, organizations will have to change they way they think of organizational and systems structures and embrace a collaborative culture that will empower people to create value in new ways. As Mayfield puts it "people are the platform, and when you empower them, great things flow between them. While their abilities can be augmented by automating low level tasks, it is they who provide the intelligence. Either as individuals or as a collective."
People as Platform and Organizational Convergence
There are two components to Mayfield's argument: that organizations must empower people with more powerful networking capabilities (people as platform); and that organizations must converge from current operational silos (Marketing, PR, Sales, Service, Development, Production) to new ones based on expertise (for example, Thought Leadership, Technical Expertise, Relationship Management, Transactions).
Empowering people as platform will allow organizations to become engaged with and learn from the customer conversations about their brand that currently touch the organization (the 1% they are learn from and an additional 9% they don't).
Resolving organizational convergence will allow the organization to begin "transforming the other 90%". This sounds great, but I can't help but wonder that creating more efficient human networks and embracing organizational restructuring based on either process oriented functions (transactions or relationship management for example), or expertise (technical, legal, business) isn't too technocratic to be embraced by employees, customers, partners and others who touch the organization. In some respects it seems contrary to the promise of social media -- to humanize the organization by allowing it to reinvent itself in ways that will empower people to organize in new ways to meet current challenges and opportunities and create a passion for what they do.
Beyond networks to communities of interest
John Seely Brown talked about this at a recent moderated discussion with John Hagel III at San Francisco's Wharton School (U.S. Economic Trends, Talent and Passion). Brown argued that while surfacing networks will help to unlock passive knowledge but will not invoke the passion in individuals that will invoke the passion that will be transformative to the organization.
In their blog The Big Shift Brown and Hagel talk about the powerful effects that networks can have in improving performance (Introducing the Collaboration Curve). They argue that as you add more participants to a network it experiences significant performance gains. Brown and Hagel believe that a central component of success is in the creation of what they call "creation spaces", environments where collaboration can occur. They give three examples of successful creation spaces -- World of Warcraft, SAP's Software Developer Network (SDN) and big wave surfing.
In essence creation spaces are another name for discourse communities (or communities of interest). World of Warcraft, SAP SDN and big wave surfing have been successful because they have built a community around a group of people that are passionate about the subject matter.
Why Community Building is Important
1. Communities create passion -- whether it is built on the idea of a nation, city, sport, business challenge or opportunity.The idea of big wave surfing or NetWeaver as a transformative technology, is one that inspires those in a way that the network itself cannot. It also inspires passion that other forms of organization cannot. People participate because they care -- alot.
2. Communities drive value creation.
Communities will allow organization that is more solution oriented, which in turn will spawn rapid innovation and realize significant value (to the organization, its customers and partners) -- for example SAP SDN's Industry Value Networks and the Enterprise Services Community. The larger community (SAP SDN) allows for the mobilization of specialized expertise and interest into more focused communities where real value is created. When I worked at IBM I found that they were great at creating these types of communities to develop new solutions -- I worked on a couple in healthcare and banking. What would have made these efforts more rewarding was if there was a better way to grow the community both within the organization and beyond.
3. Communities establish goals and norms
As with nations, communities are nothing if they are not an idea. This is especially true of communities of interest which have as their foundation a set of common goals. For big wave surfers this is to continually improve board technology and surfing techniques. Working on healthcare solutions at IBM it was to improve outcomes through better data management and analytics. The goals of the community are driven at improving performance in a way that a network can't.
While networks can have effect they can also be transient - but communities have much longer lifespans and so can provide continuity as the community members come and go. This longevity also better helps to establish norms. An good illustration of this is a study done by Susan Fitzmaurice (published by the University of Sheffield in 2007). Fitzmaurice studied the role of social networks and community in influencing the social behavior and practices as represented in language use in the world of periodical essays in eighteenth century London.
Fitzmaurice had assumed that strong network ties especially among the most influential members of the network (Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Alexander Pope and others) who closely collaborated on a number of influential publications including the Spectator, the Tatler and the Examiner. Fitzmaurice had expected that network ties would be the primary influencer in establishing linguistic norms but found that the discourse community had a significant impact even where network ties were weak.
In many respects then the discourse community can be more influential in goal setting and rules of engagement than the network. This is not to say that social networks (and leaders and influencers in those networks) aren't important. They are. But the community is an essential element in driving and sustaining performance.
Malcolm Gladwell also demonstrates this in The Tipping Point, where he describes the power of community through the "Broken Windows theory." The theory states that social norms can be changed by making small changes to the community (for example, fixing broken windows or removing graffiti on subways to reduce crime and vandalism).
The Challenge in Community Building
One of the most significant challenges going forward is in providing capabilities to quickly build effective communities from networks within large organizations or even across them. How do we discover people who share our interests and values? How do we uncover existing communities? While current profile capabilities built into social platforms are a good start they don't go far enough. They have to begin to understand the social context of both individuals and content in order for effective community building.
It also means that organizations must begin to evaluate how they can accommodate organizational restructuring based on emerging communities, and how best to stimulate their growth and success.