Make social passion the cornerstone of enterprise collaboration

The deployment of enterprise collaboration and social media is now a top agenda item for CIOs. Realizing the potential of these tools is a matter of passion, experts say.

Enterprise collaboration is hot, judging by the rush of vendors selling collaboration platforms. But collaboration is especially potent when it takes advantage of the social instincts of employees who are passionate about something.

That was the message of a panel of enterprise collaboration experts at the recent Gilbane Conference on content and collaboration in Boston.

When Best Buy Inc. launched its musical instrument business two years ago, the company looked to an unusual source for online customer support: employees in any corner of the Richfield, Minn.-based retail giant's operations who were enthusiastic about music.

"They asked employees, 'Who here has a passion for music?' Then they asked them to help in the company's online communities," said François Gossieaux, president of Human 1.0, a marketing consulting firm in Andover, Mass.

Instead of relying just on the sales and customer support teams for its new line of business, Best Buy corralled everyone -- from the finance guy who played in a band on the weekend to the college music major -- to talk to its customers. In this instance, enterprise collaboration was not a task required by the employees' position, but a social interaction based on passion, or how the employees felt. That approach, according to enterprise collaboration experts, makes all the difference.

"If you can get people to help you even though it is not their job description, you are going to get scale that you can never achieve with traditional budgets," Gossieaux said.

This type of enterprise collaboration, which taps into employees' passion, might best be called social computing or social process. Social computing differs from more traditional enterprise collaboration efforts in a couple of ways. In traditional enterprise collaboration, according to the panel, the people involved in the task know one another, and it is their job to get the work done. In contrast, the people involved in social computing often don't know each other, and they are not being paid for their work. The work is based on social currency (the reward one gets from being social: status or admiration, for example), and stems from the individuals' passion.

"You're scaling the passion within your company; and when you scale the passion, we have all seen what happens in terms of productivity and word of mouth," Gossieaux said. "Companies that are doing collaboration right -- and succeeding -- are getting disproportionate advantages, compared with those that are not getting it right."

Getting it right will be hard for many companies, according to the Shift Index, a set of metrics developed by Deloitte LLP to gauge the effect of long-term trends on companies. In the 2010 index, which looked at the correlation between worker passion and performance, 23% of workers, on average, were scored by the metrics as being passionate about their current jobs. The highest percentage of passionate workers was found among the self-employed (47% versus 21% of those worked for an employer). Insurance industry employees had the lowest percentage of passionate workers (18%), and those in the energy industry, the highest (27%).

Leveraging love for lucre

Companies not only fail to tap into the passion of employees for collaboration; many also fail to understand the power of social computing, said panelist Barry Libert, president of Mzinga Inc., a Waltham, Mass.-based social media software provider. In his company's experience, business leaders looking to use social media and networking tend to go one of two ways. "They take social media and use it as a broadcast medium to further the same thing we have always done: make collaboration and money come first and social passions second." Google Inc. and the business it just failed to acquire, GroupOn Inc., for example, practice "transaction-based" social media, he said.

Libert is a proponent of going the other way: Rather than using social media and networking to broadcast the same old marketing message, or as the communication tool for an enterprise collaboration project, companies should craft a social media strategy that puts "our hearts and passions" first, he said.

If you can get people to help you even though it is not their job description, you are going to get scale that you can never achieve with traditional budgets.

François Gossieaux, president, Human 1.0

Client ESPN Inc., for example, went from 547,000 to 31 million online community members in 2010, Libert claimed, by giving sports enthusiasts a forum for their deep feelings about sports. (The media giant apparently felt differently about employee input in 2009, when fears about the risks associated with its employees' use of social networking prompted it to limit their use of social networking tools for business purposes.)

"For leaders, it is hard," Libert said. "'I make more money than you; what do I get for letting you be human? If you speak your passions, you might say things about me that I don't like, and now you have the tools to do it,'" he said. What's his advice to ESPN in its current quest for 100 million members? "Be vulnerable."

Maybe so, but not everybody in the conference audience was buying it. Nancy Newkirk, CIO for IDG, the Framingham, Mass.-based media and venture capital giant, said that when she has asked employees informally why they don't use enterprise collaboration tools, a different kind of passion tends to top the list: fear.

"Sometimes the answer I get back is the vulnerability of exposing their job. They love to collaborate, but all of a sudden they are not as valuable to the company as they are when they keep things inside," Newkirk said. "They want to do well for the company, but they need to maintain their value. Any suggestions?"

Newkirk has hit on the issue with social computing in the workplace, in Libert's view. "It is called a Faustian bargain. The current devil in the bargain is a simple one: You work for me; I own you," he said.

Two factors are messing with that dynamic, Libert said. He cited research showing that 70% of employees under the age of 29 choose their social computing devices and are used to "carrying around multiple personas." The boundaries between social interaction ("being human") and one's work persona are blurring. Moreover, just as social media has given customers a megaphone for their views about companies, employees now also have a "social path," with which they can scale their views to thousands of people. "It will be forced upon companies [to change their cultures], not because companies choose to change the Faustian bargain."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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