Siloed Social Conversations Impede Shared Experience


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The Altimeter Group’s report from earlier this year, The Evolution of Social Business: Six Stages of Social Business Transformation, offers the above graphic to exemplify the way social networking develops as the social activities of businesses mature. I tend to feel skeptical about many developmental models in social business simply because markets differ, sometimes in fundamental ways, and businesses organize accordingly. However, since a previous post here summarized the currently dominant Hub and Spoke approach as falling short as a way to organize collaboration in relation to customer experience, I feel elaborating on that point is in order.

Shared experience, not just shared information, is fundamental to the social networks underlying collaboration and innovation. Many, if not most, employees don’t only need to get to know one another through reputation systems, like who people tag as possessing expertise. As Thomas Vander Wal continues to point out, comfort with one another is needed to develop a shared experience that encourages the open sharing of information.

Collaboration means getting to know that other employees possess expertise on this or that topic, but also developing comfort with one another by sharing significant symbols relating to self, family, friends, and social activities, thereby understanding one another as people. Shared experience with co-workers and customers is a key factor in innovative business practices. It is especially important to multichannel collaboration.

Shared experience is so important because, as Karl Weick so deftly noted almost twenty years ago, it provides the basis for mutual understanding or, to put it bluntly, how we understand one another when we do things together. Nancy Dixon recently offered a concise summary of this point which I recommend reading.

I’ve noted the importance of shared experience to collaboration in several posts. Michael Sampson summarized the points I’ve tried to make as aptly as anyone in his post Get to Know Your Virtual Colleagues as People – and Good Things Happen (to Important Things Like Productivity) and his perspective is much appreciated by me. He noted:

Trust between collaborators is an important factor related to collaboration effectiveness. Spending time talking to and learning about the people you work with provides the mechanism for trust to flourish – if they are trustworthy – or diminish – if they are not worthy of your trust…It makes sense that when people experience the same thing together – creating shared history and shared memories – it binds the group together in a much deeper way than merely having the same information.

So, you might say, what does this have to do with organizational silos?

The best way to begin answering the question is to look at an interesting insight offered by Mark Fidelman and Dion Hinchliffe regarding the cross-currents enterprises face in attempts to use social software to increase collaboration. In Rethinking the Customer Journey in a Social World they noted:

…it’s the mindset of the social world, where everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and perhaps even thinking, that may very well be the hardest to adapt to and instill in our corporate culture. It’s a world where those who know how to tap into global knowledge flows in social networks on the “edge” of our businesses will succeed. Thus, we need a new vocabulary for understanding not only our businesses, but how it will deeply affect the entire experience of our customers, from beginning to end. This transformation of thinking and working is required in order to access the significant benefits of truly remaking how we engage with the market.

Their thinking seems torn between insight into where the changes for business are headed and what they think likely to happen in the short-term. Dion in particular recognizes the fact that social business requires organizational transformation when, for instance, he asserts, ” social business is first and foremost a transformation involving people and the organizations they work with.” Yet, if you consider where he thinks the in-roads for social software (including social media) are for business over the next year or so, the contrast in perspective is pretty distinct. Dion says in another post that it is in the vertical space of enterprises where most of the innovation is set to occur for social software.

While general purpose social software platforms can certainly be used in all of these areas, high impact application of social media to the way we work often requires application-specific constraints on conversations and the resultant community activity (my emphasis). This means social customer care benefits from conversations organized around support, social supply chain focused on ERP transactions, and so on, along with software that supports these applied uses.

Yammer spread out over Sharepoint sites is a good example. The enterprise use-cases of social business implementation offered by Ray Wang support Dion’s assertion. Indeed, one of the recent findings by The Community Roundtable offered in their 2013 State of Community Management report is indicative. The report observes that community managers are most often “hubs” and, further, that:

Key factors, such as the amount of cross-functional interactions and size of community teams [with external or internal focus — my point], are putting a resource strain on community managers, particularly in large organizations.

A key organizational point is worth making here because it relates directly to the burdens the hub-and-spoke model, whether cross-functional or dandelion, places on collaboration between employees, customers, partners, and other stakeholders. Indeed, the “Tip” offered by Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter regarding the “dandelion” hub-and spoke model is telling. He noted that,

the lines connecting the multiple hubs may be severed. Tip: provide way for spokes to connect to each other, not just be funneled through a central group.

Just like social networks do not respect organizational boundaries, edge cases do not respect vertical (read, silo-oriented) organizational constraints on conversation. This is an important point when you consider that most of the time spent by employees involves dealing with edge cases, i.e. exceptions to core processes. I suggest that at least part of this outcome results from the fact that not enough employees in the enterprise develop shared experiences. If you agree with me, I guess we just need to think about how to make this happen. If not, then you probably need a bit more detail which, hopefully, you can spare the time for.

Edge Cases and Organizational Exceptions

Exceptions to business process almost always occur at the edge of core automated processes. As John Seely Brown noted recently,

Corporations, for the most part, aren’t going to reinvent themselves by improving on the core competencies they’ve been honing for years. Instead, if they’re going to change, they’re going to do so from the outside in, allowing ideas from the edge of the company to penetrate to the core. Social media will be a part of that transformation.

We offered a couple of examples from GE in a previous post, Podular Organization and Edge Businesses. Using social software to build vertical spaces inside enterprises for collaboration around the goals of a silo is not the same as designing for innovative capability and community. Indeed, to some extent, it is in effect building around innovative capability. Dion added to that insight by noting that,

“… we need to wrap our businesses in social in a more ambient and deeply connected manner. To work, this must be more than for example merely adding threaded conversations to our systems of record. It’s about weaving collaboration into everything we do, efficiently and simply. The good news is that there’s now hope to … connect social to workflow. With recent advances like real, mature, standardized social integration with OpenSocial 2.0 — with widespread support by enterprise software makers for the first time — there’s a genuine opportunity, right now, for us to connect our daily departmental and enterprise-scale work activities en masse to an overall social fabric that enables real change, real results, and real ROI.”

Stowe Boyd makes a similar point, while adding that simply layering social software over organizational siloes in order to make activity streams visible, such as Yammer or Chatter, is not going to affect the recognition and management of edge cases. As Stowe observes:

I am a strong advocate for the activity stream as a useful and powerful metaphor in social tools. So, in a way, I believe that user model will become ubiquitous, and will be central to all successful social tools, going forward. However, there is a subtle problem here, one that is unrelated to user experience. It’s about the way these vendors are envisioning the workplace that these tools are supposed to work in, and what users need to accomplish their work. They envision a horizontal social layer laid down on top of vertical enterprise applications, like ERP, HR, and CRM.

Some companies seem to understand the issue pretty well. For example, in describing the adoption of its social business platform, CoLab, the CIO for GE Corporate, Ron Utterbeck, noted the following:

one in three of the connections that we have on the site are across functions. One in four is across geographies, whether between North America and Asia, Europe, South America. And one in five is across our business units.

It is important for connections to occur across functions, as well as stakeholder groups such as customers and partners, because approximately 80% of the learning occurring when people work together happens informally and socially. In addition, John Hagel and John Seeley Brown contend that “as much as two-thirds of headcount time in major enterprise functions like marketing, manufacturing and supply chain management is spent on exception handling.” As I noted in Social Flow and the Paradox of Exception Handling in ACM, it is not coincidence that the two time estimates related to informal/social learning and exception handling are aligned. The work practices underlying both statistics exemplify institutional realities shared by people involved in getting their jobs done.

In addition, exceptions to business process don’t just arise out of the ether in enterprises. Often they are built into the products/services from the start. Consider Booz, Allen, Hamilton’s “Money Isn’t Everything” 2005 report on the Global Innovation 1000 which observed that (see, Open Innovation, Self-orientation, and Customer Dialogue) 70 percent of the cost of a product or service results from design decisions made by staff, such as parts standardization, suppliers used, and the complexity of the product’s features.

The more people connect and collaborate across functional, geographic, and business units the higher the likelihood that effectiveness in product/service design occurs and the need for exception management diminishes.

Humana, the health insurance company, understood the importance of shared experience to collaboration when they implemented their social business platform, Buzz. According to Jeff Ross, the community manager for the Enterprise Social Media Team at Humana, more than 26,000 of the firm’s 40,000 employees are active on the platform.

Buzz is going strong with more 1,200 special interest groups. Ross says he lets people talk about whatever they want, and overall it breaks down so that between 60% and 70% of the conversations are about work. Work-related groups include health and wellness issues, as you would expect at a health insurance company. Non-work examples include music lovers and new moms and dads.

If you plan on implementing an enterprise social network and think it is a bad idea to allow conversation to occur across silos, or think non-business topics are inappropriate for the network, think twice about your assumptions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Larry Irons
Larry Irons, PhD, is the Principal of Customer Clues. Customer Clues provides consulting services to design manageable product and service experiences across your marketing, learning, and organizational performance initiatives.


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