Getting Serious about Community Development (Part 12)

Two examples of internal social networks that never really worked. Oh and by the way, you can skip the long introduction and go straight to the examples, but then you will totally miss the point.

The purpose of this article is not to blame the people who had the courage to give it a go; rather, the intent is to make sure that we distill the right lessons. As I am writing this I will try to derive a set of indicators that serve as signposts along the way.

But before I do so I want you to have a closer look at the paradigm shift we are experiencing right now. It’s a big one and it shapes our expectations of what we experience as ‘normal’.

The Subconscious Shift of Society

For more than 5 years social networks have been penetrating our society and our brains and influenced the ways we interact and spend our time. We have become acquainted to the fact that everyone has a smartphone with a camera; that practically everyone is capable of communicating (or maybe better: “to exchange information”) all of the time.

Our expectations with regards to this new language of posting, sharing, liking and commenting has shifted dramatically as well. What’s even more surprising is the fact that this shift has happened without us being really aware of it. If we were to compare our thoughts about the online profile of a person five years ago versus now, we would notice a radical shift in attitude:

  • Five years ago a job-applicant who was not appearing in the search results of Google, having no Facebook account or LinkedIn profile, would be a normal person;
  • Compare that to our expectations now: such a person would seem suspicious right? We would wonder: ‘what does this candidate have to hide?’ Even the mere absence of a profile picture on LinkedIn triggers our suspicion…

And there is more: from shifted expectations to shifted habits… honestly answer the following question for yourself: from to moment you wake up until the first time you check your smartphone, tablet or computer… how many seconds, minutes, hours? Liking, sharing, linking, lurking; it is becoming as much engrained in our habits as eating and drinking. And in a sense this is a good thing, because it has the potential to bring people together, as NYU professor Clay Shirky notes:

Social media is the best tool for group communication since the table.

This is big. This is fundamental. And it will last, because it taps into our tribal nature that has been engrained in our human genes for more than 200.000 years.

Expectations and Disappointments

With that major societal shift in mind we need to look at the pressure on the shoulders of C-suites, IT departments, HR departments and communication departments to make good use of social media as an internal platform of communication. Mind you, society has upgraded its literacy with the language of online collaboration, we as individuals are affected by it… BUT our organizations are stuck into structures that were defined over 120 years ago.

We have witnessed all kinds of reactions that match all the colors of the rainbow of resistance… from the raging red ‘not in a lifetime‘, over the grey ‘what about privacy?‘ or ‘it does not comply to our policies‘. Colored reactions. Lots of them. And that is OK, because quite frankly there was – and there still isn’t – any water-proof scenario or plan to kick-off and roll-out an internal social network successfully.

So there we are; between the rock and the hard place: the pressure of society has become so big that for the first time since the existence of corporate IT users are telling what progress they want – and we do it with excruciating detail. The heat is on, and leaders are aware of that, so they take action. They fight internal battles to allow social networks inside our organizations… only to find out half a year later that they are empty or that they went totally astray.

Damn… what went wrong?


Example 1

Laura is a seasoned organizational change practitioner who specializes in the implementation of ERP packages. Her role is to make sure that users get appointed, trained, prepared and that they finally change their working habits according to the new system. Laura is a brilliant practitioner and she knows the difference between installation and realization. Her purpose is to make sure that there is a community of users and key-users that can rely on each other for the realization and sustainability of the project – even when she is not there anymore. What she has in mind is a Social Architecture; i.e.: a social fabric that is built around the technical architecture to ensure sustainability and ownership over the solution.

Since the users of the ERP package can be easily assigned to roles, this is the best way to connect the people on a social platform. In Laura’s case, she chose for Yammer because of the ease of use and the very low threshold of access: you can let people access, you don’t need to bother the people of IT too much and you can deploy it under the radar of HR…

And it worked: people carried the same hats on the platform as they were assigned to do in practice – so they connected to ask, share, sometimes complain and whine, solve and support each other across geographical and organizational boundaries.

However, these advantages quickly turned against the success of the social network: slowly the activity rate began to decrease and one division after another was not participating anymore… all of them had switched to email again. It turned out that management got a smell of what was going on and quicly labeled it as “a waste of time” – not to mention that they would over and over rip Laura’s words out of context: “Yammer is a Facebook inside of your company” (in reality it is) and then started to build their case against Facebook with the most juicy examples they could think of. Laura eventually gave up on curating the platform and posting updates hoping for a response. After all, a social network is no fun when nobody is there…

Example 2

Peter is part of the team that is responsible for setting up 60 internal social networks inside of his company. The purpose of their social media strategy is to start seeding social networks wherever they had identified a potential for community. It took him an agonizing long time and numerous presentations for the board to obtain a budget and an official ‘go’ for their project. In fact, a whole year has passed since the idea was brought up. The good thing about it is that it gave Peter the time to identify targets, to select a software provider for their network, and to talk the whole hierarchy through the whole initiative. We are talking about a strategic initiative here and these people mean it.

Imagine this: everything was soooo prepared for: intake forms, use-case questionnaires, permission of bosses to attend the kick-off, the platform was up and running, the group was assigned, the participants of the department were all enrolled.

And then what? Peter learned that, no matter how hard he tried, there was simply no added value in setting up a virtual group for certain communities they had identified. In fact, they even went all the way to declare the communities that identified their productlines.

But people weren’t on the outlook of for improvements or new tools within their productlines. There was no direct use case that proved that work would be improved by means of the platform; there were no communication gaps that would be remediated by it. In fact, some people reported to be quite offended by the ‘herding the cattle‘ strategy as they perceived it.

If Peter would have listened better, he would have discovered that there was a need for people to connect around sustainability, around certain seasonal events that require a joint efforts from all productlines, and most of all a need to build an environment to incubate innovative ideas from customers.

But still, the mandate of Peter was to seed around productlines. So he did. Out of politeness the participants used it … for one week… after that they said “WTF?” and they continued with business as usual.

What can we learn?

What these examples have in common is the lack of legitimacy, and that’s a two-way thing. In the first example legitimacy is about sponsorship, in the second example it is about permission. Legitimacy is the blind-spot of authority; i.e.: we expect social networks to work as smooth within our authority-based structures as outside – and when they don’t we are surprised.

In fact, authority takes every bit of natural communication out of the conversation when it is not perceived as legitimate. It’s one of those hygiene factors we never think about in our private lives.

  • What this means for Laura’s example is that she needs to make sure that management participates to the online conversation, thereby acknowledging the legitimacy of the platform. Implicitly they grant the permission and shape the space for colleagues to connect across organizational boundaries.
  • What this means for Peter is that he needs to step back and listen for the real needs for people to connect. One should never attempt to start a community from scratch. Communities exist already. The only thing Peter needs to do is to offer them a platform that proves to be valuable to what they need.


Next, both Laura and Peter need to honor the community by making sure that highlights and concerns are shared. Again, this is nothing else than putting the human element back into the equation.

Legitimacy… come to think of it… it’s a hell of a job.