“There’s no question – the early success of peer-driven, social-media programs will put pressure on businesses to both adapt and adopt. But, for some leaders, there’s another question: in a world where everyone participates, what does it mean to lead?”
[Note: A longer, annotated version of the following essay recently was published in The Journal of New Communications Research.]
When speaking to senior in-house marketing professionals, I’m often asked to provide evidence that social media projects have returned clear and measurable benefits to their business sponsors. That’s a tough question to answer – not because the benefits are unknown (there are a growing number of case studies in the public record) – but because there really isn't a way to frame the benefits in a way that communicates the urgency with which businesses must respond if they are going to participate meaningfully, or sit idly on the sidelines. There’s evidence all around us that businesses are benefiting from the adoption of social media. The problem is deciding on the proper lens to see the larger effects.
That's my perspective – it’s genuine – and for several months I’ve been working on a way to simplify the argument to its simplest elements, so that when I leave the room my client has both the data and the framework to construct, and reconstruct, the case for whatever audience she faces. This is not a simple messaging exercise. It's a way to equip the marketing executive with a practical way to describe all the benefits – and there are many – that social media projects are delivering to the enterprise today. After much debate and discussion with my own peers, I have decided on the word peer as a metaphor for framing the discussion.
Peer works for several reasons:
(1) it captures the key reason many corporate social-media projects appear to be working – namely, that businesses are benefiting from social media because they are enabling the many rather than the few to participate in these projects. It's the wisdom and industry of the crowds that appear to be helping businesses, because with large numbers of people – staff, customers and partners – working as participants, businesses simply are getting more than they were when only a few people were in the mix.
(2) the use of the word peer in this general context is not original; there is therefore the potential to broaden its application. I'm referring to the phrase peer production, which has been gaining popularity among business writers, who themselves need a simple way to describe at least one of the businesses benefits conferred by the crowd: industry. But – as I will show in a bit –peers can do a lot more than just produce.
(3) peer also captures one of the darker, less attractive aspects of social media – the fact that the adoption of social media, to some extent, is driven by the desire to conform. This topic has been explored in many places, most provocatively last Spring in an online post by Jason Lanier. The conformity problem poses a challenge to organizations that are asking, "how can we get onboard this ship yet remain captain?"
What follows is a brief examination of the different kinds of benefits that social media projects are delivering to the enterprise. The data, while scant – and with some slant -- comes from publicly available case studies. I felt it was important to start with what's already known, and see if there are any patterns that are emerging that can warrant further inquiry. In fact, I see at least five such patterns – and one fundamental challenge – that can help future researchers construct a more formal study. But, in summary, the patterns represent a shift in approach to managing information at each stage of a knowledge-management cycle: production, adjudication, communication, storage/retrieval, and aggregation. Together they make a working hypothesis on the adoption of corporate social media. It’s a hypothesis that I’d like to explore in this essay.
Before looking at those patterns, it might be helpful to review the basic conditions under which social-media practitioners work today.
First, social-media tools are, by nature, social. The savviest practitioners understand this and take great care to build social sense into their work; they follow social rules. For example: (1) ensuring that capable leaders with social skills are chosen – or allowed to emerge – to lead the projects; (2) appealing to both group and individual needs of the participants; and (3), where it makes sense, building communities around particular topics and services as a way of scaling the population of users. Many case studies describe innovation with the social rules, rather than the tools.
Second, even though rules trump tools, we must keep in mind that the digital world – in which participants socialize -- is different. Generally, the digital world is more inclusive, open, and efficient than the “real” world. So, in addition to being well versed in social rules, practitioners need to understand some of the mathematical subtleties about the Internet and find ways to innovate around commonplace but important principles such as the long tail (the value of niche markets and conversations), the wisdom of crowds (peer production), power-law distributions (the influence of well-networked participants). But these rules, too, might be considered social rules, but for the fact that they operate in the digital world. I explored this challenge in an earlier essay, and offered up the inelegant but descriptive phrase digital/social rules. These rules are always in action in the most successful social-media projects.
Third – and this leads to the main part of this essay – some of the leading proponents of social media appear to be saying that the new rules and new tools provide businesses with a better way to do old things. In other words, “social media beats older collaborative technology.” This is frustrating for those of us old enough to remember the promises that were made each time collaborative technologies were brought to the marketplace. As a result of that frustration, the oldsters are forcing the youngsters to make the case that social media is something different.
This is a practical point of entry into the conversation about the enterprise. It focuses the discussion on how social rules are in fact more pronounced – and beneficial to businesses – in a social-media environment. So turning to the five patterns on the adoption of social media, I'd like to add an extra filter to the conversation: “what's different today from yesterday?”
Pattern # 1: Peer production (Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein)
As I said earlier, peer production is perhaps the best understood business benefit. Simply put, the idea is that when more people – more staff, more customers, more partners – participate in the creation of knowledge, the quantity and quality of knowledge also increases. This, I admit, is a narrow application of the phrase peer production. But I do this deliberately to later illustrate other ways that groups work together to benefit their organizations.
In publicly available case studies, I found evidence that many businesses today are using social media to build subject-specific knowledge inside the enterprise. In fact, the catalog of case studies in this area is growing very fast. There are many blog and wiki case studies reporting improved efficiency in product development (SAP; Macromedia); product marketing (Symantec); sales and marketing (Stata Labs, QAD); knowledge management (Dresdner, Honeywell, Intel). One of the more interesting case studies is a large social media project at Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW), which I wrote about briefly in a Spring 2006 of wiki implementations. (Full disclosure: DrKW is a customer of Socialtext, a partner and client).
DrKW, the international investment bank, is operating what is widely believed to be the largest internal corporate wiki. As the Financial Times reported, the DrKW wiki, with more than 2,000 pages (edited by more than a quarter of its workforce), has traffic well exceeding the company's corporate intranet. Employees are using this online environment for a wide variety of activities, including training, project management, and sales support. With this wide and far-reaching agenda, the wiki has been dubbed the DrKWpedia, a nod to the largest wiki of all, Wikipedia.
It’s a telling tribute – Wikipedia is the poster child for peer production, and there's data suggesting that other businesses are looking to launch their own "pedias." But, as I said earlier, the production of knowledge is just but one activity for which peers are being recruited in the enterprise. And there is more to building a “pedia” than collecting knowledge.
Pattern #2: Peer Adjudication (SAP)
With the creation of knowledge – especially in cases where there's lots of knowledge – comes the responsibility to decide what is useful and what is not. In the old model – e.g., the corporate portal – the decision-making process was the responsibility of staffers who either had the formal authority, or the technical skill, to make decisions. A few case studies illustrate how the social-media approach might be more effective.
One of the better-known cases is a competitive intelligence project inside enterprise software giant, SAP. (Full disclosure: I have consulted for SAP, on an unrelated social media project). The SAP Apollo group – an ad hoc strategy team – is using a suite of social media tools (blogs, RSS, wikis) to collect information that enables the company to better compete with its chief rival, Oracle. This is one application of social media that we should see more of in the future; the gathering of competitive intelligence, and the assessment of that intelligence, are two of the most critical areas of activity for any enterprise. But the SAP case study shines light on the broader opportunity that businesses have to use social media to collect and refine any variety of critical data. Enterprise wiki companies frequently talk about this in their marketing literature – it’s a key benefit, and the implementation of wikis in the enterprise is helping businesses to understand that benefit better. Whether a social-media tool is used for product development (Macromedia), product marketing (Symantec), or building an intra-campus student information system (Johns Hopkins), peers can use these tools to adjudicate the value of data.
Pattern #3: Peer communication (IBM)
This is a pattern that should get lots of excitement in the world I live in – corporate communications. Yet, as of this date, very few organizations have meaningfully exploited its potential. The idea, consistent with one of the digital/social rules mentioned earlier, is this: if your organization has many experts who can connect with many important audiences, why limit your communications team to a few corporate spokespeople?
That was one of the challenges that the IBM corporate communications team – led by Christopher Barger – met when embarking on what is probably the most ambitious corporate social-media project to date. The IBM team designed a social-media portal – a complement to the corporate intranet – that gave all employees the knowledge, tools and policy guidelines to blog. Today, more than 15,000 IBM employees blog internally, and more than 5,000 blog externally. But the numbers themselves obscure the real innovation: the portal has provided IBM with a distribution mechanism for enabling numerous niche conversations to take place between experts and audiences.
Despite the obvious risks – we know of only a few businesses today that are thinking of taking this path – the organizational efficiencies to this approach are obvious. The IBM project points to a possible future where corporate communications professionals see their mandate as building a "community of communicators." Already, a few employee communications professionals have begun saying this.
Pattern #4: Peer storage/retrieval (Maytag)
In a January 2006 article in Information Week, reporter Ezra Goodnoe noted an often-overlooked business benefit: institutional memory. A number of businesses (e.g., Kodak, Maytag) have reported that internal blog and wiki implementations have been returning better results in storing and retrieving information critical to product development and customer relations.
Maytag, the appliance company, has a compelling case study in this area. With a blog-based system for tracking customer communications, a company whose brand has always stood for customer satisfaction (recall the 60’s ad about the idle Maytag repairman) is looking to further improve its reputation. Predictably, Maytag also believes that it is helping its brand by servicing customers with a tool that conveys openness. But the key benefit reported in this case study is institutional memory. Several other companies point to the ease and efficiency that social media offers in retrieving information that might have been lost in older systems.
Pattern #5: Peer aggregation (Microsoft)
In The Long Tail, one of the year’s most popular business books, Wired editor Chris Anderson offered readers two simple tips for succeeding in the post-Google economy: (1) make everything available, and (2) help the customer find it. These recommendations fit with some of the patterns we've already outlined (e.g., peer production; peer storage/retrieval). But the larger aim of Anderson's book -- which outlines the emergence of Internet giants -- is describing anatomy of the aggregator. A very strong pattern in the adoption of social media is the trend toward centralizing and aggregating all activities via internal or external portals.
On some level, history appears to be repeating itself. The portal was all the rage in the last round of KM investment for many businesses. But in this new wave of KM investment, the portal may or may not stand apart from the corporate intranet. Or, if it's externally facing, it may or may not link directly from the corporate Web site. What it does do, invariably, is to act like a hub for many participants --internal and external -- to an organization. And because the new portals incorporate social media, the general rule is that they are driven by peers. What that means, potentially, is an improvement in the rate at which content is aggregated on portals. Peer aggregation seems to be emerging as a better way of building out the content that portals are supposed to provide. I noted the IBM blogging portal, which sits behind the company firewall. A good example of an externally facing social-media portal is Microsoft's Channel 9.
When people hear the name Robert Scoble, many think about “Scoblelizer,” the groundbreaking blog that he wrote for Microsoft before his departure for Podtech. His work for Channel 9 was just as noteworthy. A pioneer in do-it-yourself, off-the-cuff video, Scoble trolled the Microsoft campus, capturing scores of staffers in their real-work environments, unscripted, and without handlers. More important, Channel 9 used numerous social-media tools – video podcasting, audio podcasting, blogs, wikis, RSS – to match the right expert -- via the right medium -- to the right audience. Channel 9 might represent the future of the corporate Web site – a highly interactive, audience-savvy Web channel that both aggregates content and congregates community for the benefit of the community and company.
A different kind of peer pressure
So, these are the patterns, and in the coming months we will be using them to frame our conversations with other companies who are willing to report their experiences with social media inside the enterprise. But before I close, I'd like to briefly address a question that my most ambitious clients and colleagues are asking. The patterns we discussed are behaviors that naturally are emerging in a world where people are participating more than they ever have before. That's the essence of the peer-driven economy: peer participation, and more of it. “There’s no question – the early success of peer-driven, social media programs will put pressure on businesses to both adapt and adopt. But, for some leaders, there’s another question: in a world where everyone participates, what does it mean to lead?”
A natural inclination for leaders is to listen to the crowd, yes, but not be held in its sway. That’s what makes them leaders. It would be wrong to give in to peer pressure – the bad kind – even when the wisdom and the industry of peers is the topic of conversation. But as some of the earliest case studies show, businesses are learning what it means to lead in this new world, and the patterns we are studying can help them to innovate. We have already seen innovation around business efficiencies, as more and more businesses adopt new media for the development of products, internal communications, and competitive intelligence. We have already seen innovation in marketing and corporate communications, as communication professionals continue to support ways to connect experts with audiences. Next, I expect we'll see innovation in new areas of activity (e.g., industry ecosystems), new channels for communication (e.g., mobile), and, most exciting, new values-based policies for managing all the knowledge that we and our peers are creating.
For this writer – a member of a team that has committed to gaining a better understanding of what businesses want to do, and ought to do -- "what does it mean to lead" is as much a philosophical problem as it is a business question. And to answer that question, one needs to fully understand both the promise and the dangers of this productivity-driven, information-intensive world, and work intelligently to make it a better place, especially for the growing number of people who participate. A leader among peers must join her peers and act in a way that – to borrow a time-tested business cliché, coined well before this uncertain era – adds value.