Companies aren't communities. They aren't forums.
Companies are companies.
Of course company life has a community aspect, but a lot of social software folks seem to forget that there's a lot more to a company than community. They treat companies as if they were consumer communities or forums that all just happen to have their paychecks signed by the same person.
Why does the difference matter? The answer is in the numbers. Online communities and forums typically attract very small audiences relative to the total target population: Less than 1% adoption is typical, and 5% adoption would be a grand-slam. That's fine for the consumer web, but those numbers inside the enterprise aren't exactly a ringing endorsement.
Successful enterprise implementations of social software have orders-of-magnitude higher adoption rates. For example, yesterday I was in New York meeting with Getty Images. Getty's Socialtext implementation is seeing 95% active adoption. Those are the numbers we're looking for inside the enterprise!
So how do we get there?
Companies, by very definition, have reporting structures, established workflows, shared systems and processes, defined roles and responsibilities, and closely managed performance. Those are assets we don't have in communities and forums, which are typically ad-hoc groups of individuals--mostly volunteers--in a collective endeavor without clearly defined roles, processes, reporting, deliverables, or metrics.
Getty and others achieve the adoption rates they do by integrating their social software into all those structures, workflows, systems, processes, roles, and responsiblities. As Getty's Director of Learning and Development, Jennifer Fox, told me today, "We no longer going to teach people how to use Socialtext. We are going to teach them how to do their jobs...which happen to require the use of Socialtext."
I've been saying for a few years now that companies achieve adoption and business value when they place social software in the flow of work. The tools achieve real benefit when people do their jobs--not their evenings-and-weekends jobs, but their actual "day" jobs in social software. That's when it becomes woven into the fabric of a company's business processes. Adoption is almost a foregone conclusion, because that's where you do your work. Business impact is demonstrable because business processes are measurable.
What, specifically, does this mean? It depends on your business, but it's things like:
- Marketing and Product post sales collateral in your social software tool (not in email!)
- Customer Support's knowledgebase is collaboratively maintained in social software (again, not in email!)
- The executive team and other key teams keep meeting agendas and notes in social software
- CRM, ERP, and Enterprise Learning systems automatically post major events in social software
- Quick links to important resources are available--and maintained--in social software
- Technical Help Desks and other internal support functions field requests via social software
Contrast that with an online community, like a gaming group or a technical forum. In communities, there is no flow of work. That's because most people don't come to communities to do work. They come to get support help, to swap tips, to praise, to complain, to socialize. Even those people who come for professional reasons are casual, sporadic visitors. The only person who really works there day-in-day-out is the forum/community manager.
There are three groups of people who cling to the "company as community" concept: the "kumbayeros" who wish that companies were as open and democratic as communities, public community managers whose consumer-facing experience has shaped the way they view all online social interaction, and community software vendors who are looking to repurpose their consumer-oriented products for the internal market.
In the enterprise, we need to take a more pragmatic approach. As Milton Friedman famously said, "The business of business is business." Social software fails when it tries to turn businesses into communities. It succeeds when it turns businesses into better businesses.