Enterprise social networking : the difference between voluntary participation and optional membership

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Summary : If participation in social networks can only be voluntary, only voluntary people should access the network. Is this assumption, on which many adoption programs are based on, relevant ? It’s the result of a mix-up between the network and its community part, between membership and participation. It creates a frontier between those who want to try and others, a frontier that limits the spreading of the “social phenomenon” and the related benefits. If, for most workers, the network is not something obvious, it may come to them instead of waiting for people to come to the network. Interest comes from passive exposure and not from concealing to non-members. A real enterprise 2.0 or social intranet implies that everybody is a member, can browse and read, that the network is a part of the IS, that profiles have a pivotal role. What does not prevent participation from relying on people’s goodwill.

Most of times, when an assessment is made on an internal social network project, we can hear “xxxx employees decided to join”. As a matter of fact, since participation can’t be mandatory, volunteers are asked to register. So it’s logical that only a part of them can be found on the network. So, for instance, we can have 80 000 employees who can access the intranet and 6,7,8 000 that decided to also access the social network. Is that an impressive victory ? If we consider that it’s only a first step on a global roll-out program it may be, but if we consider that’s the way things should work I don’t believe in such approaches (except for very specific cases.

Of course, participation in a social network can’t be made mandatory. But this assumption deserves further explanation. Social networks are often mixed-up with communities. Participation in communities can’t be mandatory and depend on people’s goodwill. But sometimes work groups are turned into communities and, in this case, the answer is different. But things are different for the network as such, what is nothing but having a profile (they can fill in or not) and be able to connect to others, follow them, get in touch with them, follow the activity of blogs, communities, wikis etc…

The truth is critical mass is key to a successful project.

The network will spontaneously attract those who are born networkers. Some bystanders will also follow them. At then end it’s about 10% of employees. Bystanders will slowly move away (except the few that will “get” the social thing). So the network will live on volunteers, some will give up because the system will bring them back to the party line but, at the end, this small group of people will be the center of gravity of the social platform. Provided they don’t get out of breath.

This way of doing things has nothing to do with transforming work or the organization. Those who want will do things differently…and that’s all. It will only happen among them because they won’t be numerous enough to make the whole organization move with them. That’s another example of the “social bubble” syndrome that can even be painful for participants that work in a way with some people and in another way with the rest of the organization.

We can bet that some will want to join them over time. But it won’t happen if they have to reason to try, to find a personal benefit and feel like keeping the “social way”. What can bring them there ? They may think they’ll be able to find, at a given moment, the answer to a problem or the person that will be able to help. If only 10% are on the network there are many chances the others will think that it’s not worth, that there are few chances what they need will be there.

Confusing mandatory participation with mandatory membership has obviously a negative impact. That’s not because no one can be forced to participate that not everybody could access the network. There are many reasons to that :

the social network should not be a separate tool but a transverse component of the intranet, open to all.

– the best may to demonstrate the value of the network is to suggest social content to anyone when searching something on any topic. What needs decompartmentalization and a global search.

– no one can say that the purpose of a tool is decompartmentalization and consider that some people will be in and others will be out

– because it’s preventing the organization from leveraging a “mass adoption weapon” : the personal profile. This is a key issue that deserves elaboration.

One of the easiest points of entry to a social network is the individual “rich” profile. Why ? Because looking for people is one of the simplest and most common activities of anyone. Even on prehistoric intranets, it’s one of the most used function, the only reason why people use the intranet. Now, imagine anyone can enrich his own profile, that tracks of his activities can be found on it… It makes two things possible :

– when someone is doing a search on anything, the results may include people who are relevant on the topic

– when they discover other people, employees also discover the social part of the intranet, most of all when the found people are socially active.

Is there any better way to bring more quality on one of the most used features of any intranet (people search) and expose the potential of value that can be found in the network ?

As long as people will need to register to “see”, this won’t be possible. As long as there will be a directory for all and a profile for some happy fews this won’t be possible while using the network profiles to expose and enrich the directory is very easy. As long as the potential of value contained in the social spaces will only be accessible by those who registered, the ability for the whole organization to rely on the tool to create value will be limited. It doesn’t matter if only 10% participate…but if the remaining 90% can’t use their content and make the most of it, that’s like shooting oneself in the foot because it’s building one more silos and 90% of the levers that can turn social contents into value in day to day operations are wasted. (Of course…in such systems each person is a potential lever).

In short, the need of registration is a real barrier to adoption.

What I’d suggest ?

– the “social profile” is used to expose the enterprise directory for all employees. It will use the existing information at least and employees will be able to add more detailed things (regarding to governance of course)

– the social network is not a separate tool but a bunch of functionalities accessible to all. Only those who want will participate but anybody will be able to make the most of what happens there. Doing so also breaks the myth of the “social network tool”. It’s only a bunch of new tools employees are able to use and they won’t have to care about what’s social and what’s not…because it makes no difference to them and the distinction even scares them. They only want to see useful tools to get things done. Period.

If the social network isn’t brought to the whole organization, be sure that few employees will go to find it. As a matter of fact, people never expect anything from something they don’t know.

Of course, exceptions can be found. But it should not make us not being able to see the wood for the trees.

– I’m thinking about CSC or Alcatel-Lucent where adoption was wide despite of the need to register. But that’s the result of a move of the center of gravity of people activities to the social network and a deep change on how people communicate in the organization. This is not the case in the above mentioned projects where the social platform is “something more for those who want”.

– there is also the great example of Simply Market in France. But this is a very specific project. First the company’s culture favors networking and interpersonal ties, then most of users have to access to a computer at work so they can only join it when they’re off, at home or from a mobile device. That’s what make this case so exciting : it works while not relying on usual best practices. But it’s because the company is quite unique.

But it’s easier to find cases of massive adoption in organizations that had a global roll-out. In fact, with time, I often hear that those who chose the opt-in model end hitting a wall. To go further they need a deeper integration of tools, profiles and directories…what is a problem because it was not scheduled and thought from the start.

It’s often said that such a project is a lever of the corporate strategic project. In this case it should involve everybody. If not, it’s only an anecdotal appendix of the enterprise information system.