I was talking to someone yesterday about the challenges of creating a company wide social learning space. These spaces fall between the formal world of work and the informal social spaces that surround it: they are semi formal with open questions around control and ownership. Organisationally, we have to tread carefully as we create these zones, and individually we have to be careful how we inhabit them.
An important place to start is to differentiate infrastructure from engagement, to separate the community from the environment that it lives in. Infrastructure is the easy bit: we can buy, rent, build or borrow it. In corporate environments, these are often big decisions, but, by and large, for the burgeoning social communities, these are incidental. The only question is, ‘how do i get into it and who is watching what i do there’? Infrastructure is important to the organisation because the environment has to play alongside other corporate systems: it has to fit data protection standards, bandwidth requirements and security policies. From the user perspective, it just has be be as good as, or better than, the spaces that we inhabit in our social lives.
Take the intranet: we have a corporate intranet, but i couldn’t tell you what’s on it because i never use it. Why? Because i can’t access it from outside the office and, when i’m in the office, it’s dull as ditchwater. It can’t compete. The infrastructure is there to deliver information, but it doesn’t deliver information in the way that i want to consume it and, in these spaces, the consumer is king. Why is this? Well, usually it’s because corporations are more interested in branding and making things look corporate. This is fine, but sometimes it’s at the expense of them actually being brief and relevant to me.
Engagement is driven by collaboration, by challenge, by timely access to relevant information and by the ability to share relevant information fast: to drop into and out of conversations at speed. All to often, corporate channels are built for broadcast: to push information out to a population that may simply not be engaged at all. This used to be how things were done. But not any more.
So infrastructure is not hard to get right: we just need to see the standards that rule in our fully social spaces and match that in terms of usability. But engaging the community is harder: what’s the point of a social learning space? Is it for broadcast of company messages? Is it for collaboration? Is it for problem solving? Is it for gossip? And who owns the conversation? Who is listening, what are the rules? Why would i want to engage? Maybe it’s all of these things and more.
Understanding the terms of engagement is important: social learning engagement is a very delicate thing. It doesn’t take much for people to disengage. But why is engagement so brittle? Well, largely because there are very low barriers to entry to me to engage elsewhere instead. If i don’t like the technology, the conversation or the moderation here, i’ll just go elsewhere. It’s a world without boundaries you know.
That’s why i don’t engage on the intranet: there are other ways for me to find that information. In fact, one of the key reasons that i don’t engage there is because it’s set up as the default launch page every time i open the browser: that’s the kind of militant behaviour that doesn’t get tolerated in the social space, so it feels aggressive in the work one. I don’t want to end up in the intranet because i am forced to be there: i want it to be magnetic, populated with great content so that i choose to go there. Sure, it’s childlike behaviour, but telling me that i have to go there is almost guaranteed to make me disengage. I wouldn’t put up with it from Google or Facebook, so why would i put up with it at work?
This is a key challenge for organisations implementing social spaces: you can’t mitigate for engagement. You can’t force people to engage. You can get great results, high levels of engagement, but only if you actually create a space that’s engaging, and the thing that will make it engaging is the conversations, the collaboration, the community, not the infrastructure and not the social engineering of forced entry.
So the thing that drives engagement is community, our efforts need to be towards how to nurture, support and enhance the strength depth of this community. We cannot control the conversations, but we can take part in them.
This can be a big step for organisations to take: they are often used to the command and control culture that circulates newsletters, that forces you to land on a homepage, that monitors your email and internet usage and doesn’t allow you to use Facebook. To move from that position to one that welcomes community ownership, that is brave enough to let conversations flow freely, that’s a big step. A whole load of big steps in fact. But the results speak for themselves.
An organisation with an engaged social learning community is reaping enormous benefits.
In fact, great engagement can lead directly to other challenges, to the question of whether one space can be the space to rule them all? Can you fit all of the various and wonderful conversations within one space, or do you need to allow for the spawning of new sub cultures and sub communities? Every year the queen bee gives birth to a new queen, who takes part of the community away with her: they swarm and find a new home. It’s the natural order of things, with bees and with us! Even a thriving and successful corporate social space should recognise that it’s healthy for other communities to thrive elsewhere, some semi formal, some totally informal. Membership is not exclusive: you can be mainstream and counter culture, running different conversations in different spaces.
It’s a brave new world out there: nothing is fixed and it’s good to play. There is no one infrastructure, technology or community that will be with us, unchanged, in a years time. It’s a time to experiment and learn, but it’s a time to nurture engagement and redefine the rules.