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3/3/2011
01:30 PM
Rachel Happe
Rachel Happe
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Social Software Is Not Enough

Companies considering using social tools in their organizations must also come up to speed on community management.

Social software is a bit of a Trojan horse. What you often end up with is far from the dream of social business nirvana that is discussed ad nauseum online. Why? Companies are complex and set in their ways. At their core, these software environments create communities and networks--of people--with all their potential and their quirks. This cannot be addressed with software alone.

Depending on the organization, the "surprise" that results when you implement a social app or environment is always a bit different. Still, there are some common themes to those surprises:

--Ghost towns: While the pilot was somewhat active, the full production environment is a ghost town with little participation.

--Land of 1,000 flowers: People had a lot of initial interest and now there are groups for everything, from account management to how to deal with unwanted facial hair. Some are very active, but most litter the environment, making it hard to find useful content and conversations.

--Drama central: People were not happy, and they now have an outlet to express themselves. So they do -- in volume. The environment becomes a dumping ground for gripes and little else.

--A circling storm: Unwittingly, you have provided the disgruntled (with and without valid issues) a network to broadcast their grievances and the passion of the truly disgruntled is a force. However, the community management resources and governance processes were not in place to keep this situation from becoming a really big issue.

Organizations have always been like big dysfunctional families. (And they're all dysfunctional in some way.) Individuals have both explicit and implicit roles that have been played for years, making those worn grooves difficult to change. Culture binds people together in rigid ways and determines behavior, but in ways that are neither explicit nor typically well articulated. Introducing new outlets for behavior often has unexpected consequences -- like the parents who never expose their children to alcohol and then are shocked to find them binge drinking in college.

What's missing? Some form of community management. Social software creates networked social environments in which individuals self-select whether and how they participate. Depending on both the organizational culture and people's individual proclivities, they react in sometimes surprising ways to the online, networked communications channel.

Some people who are considered shy in person seem to all of a sudden find their voice because they are no longer faced with the interpersonal awkwardness they previously felt. Some individuals who are in explicit communications roles become stymied by the immediate and real-time nature of communications because they want time and space to perfect their messages. Others impulsively over-share. Some quickly cause offense because they can't see the reaction to something in others' body language, giving them the trigger to stop.

The vast majority of people, particularly as employees, are cautious and not particularly interested in adding a new 'to do' to their task list until they see the value for themselves. People with positions of influence can unwittingly shut down the conversation because others see them as an authority figure and thus the final word on a topic.

To overcome these and many other issues, someone in the organization needs to be tasked with

--understanding the root issue of problems;

--providing encouragement, value, coaching, facilitation, or policing as the situation requires;

--understanding and reporting progress;

--integrating the new environment with existing channels and business processes;

--building strategies and plans that maximize value for both the community (so that individuals participate and continue to add value) and for the organization;

--managing and administering the tools so that they are optimized for value creation.

Community management is a huge task, and unfortunately, all too often, social applications are deployed with little thought to how the environment they create is managed. I see individuals in a variety of functional roles (IT, marketing, support, knowledge management, HR, and others) given this role as a part-time task in addition to their day job.

What I know, having worked with social media, community, and social business leaders, is that the best of them can create communities with any tool at their disposal (meetings, email, list serves, forums, etc.), but the existence of a tool alone will not guarantee a valuable asset. If you are considering using social tools in your organization, it makes sense to learn more about community management. Hopefully, this column will help set you on the right track.

Rachel Happe (@rhappe) is a co-founder and principal at the Community Roundtable, a peer network for social media, community, and social business leaders. You can reach her at rachel@community-roundtable.com or 617-271-4574.

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