Social business adoption shouldn't focus on individuals. Instead, success stems from groups. Here's why.
I often have one foot in academia and the other in the corporate world. I'm a (relatively old) doctoral student studying knowledge management. I also work as a community manager for a large company. In my work and through my studies, I've noticed that both academia and the corporate world tend to ignore what might be the key to success in social business adoption: the role of groups.
Take, for example, researchers in organizational behavior. They often work using three levels of analysis: individual, group, and organizational. But what does it mean when we say we are "promoting adoption" if each of these levels means something different? Is individual blogging considered adoption? Team collaboration? Executive buy-in? If everyone in the company is logging in but using the platform solely as a document repository or a social chat room, for example, is that adoption?
To get the real value that social business platforms offer, group adoption is critical. You can't ask a question of no one in particular and expect a quick, accurate answer unless the right people are already there for other reasons. But change management strategies for adoption are almost always presented as organizational or individual challenges, hardly ever with respect to teams, departments, or other groups. Why is that?
Mostly, I think, because it's hard. On the academic side, surveys are designed to collect information from individuals. A 2005 review of more than 50 e-collaboration research studies found that "researchers' frequent decisions to analyze data at the individual level -- even when the theory was formulated at the group level and when the research setting featured individuals working in groups -- may very well have artificially inflated the authors' chances of finding statistically significant results."
In other words, groups are constructs while individuals are, well, individuals. It's very easy to know who a person is, but teams can be fluid and porous. Even researchers, who should know better, have to fight the habit of thinking about groups as only collections of individuals.
On the business side, change efforts at the organizational and individual levels are easier because they're more scalable. Most recommendations for increasing adoption advocate changing the culture, gaining executive buy-in, training employees, seamless integration, and creating a simplified user interface. Benefits are usually framed as broad enterprise improvements in agility and innovation, or as individual responses to "WIIFM" -- what's in it for me?
We've applied many of these best practices in my own company, and they really do help. For example, our executives routinely mention our social platform in presentations as "the place to get more information." We have a large collection of online help files, and we've made several enhancements to make navigating and searching easier.
But often I hear comments like, "Wow, I really like our new social platform. I just wish I could get the other members of my team to use it." You could argue that the platform is necessary but not sufficient, which might be why so many promising social business initiatives fail. When the change message is directed at the whole organization and training is focused on individual behavior, adoption is often by a random assortment of employees rather than by cohesive units.
In a recent HBR podcast, Stanford University professor Bob Sutton observed that excellence does not spread evenly throughout the organization "like a thin layer of peanut butter." It incubates in pockets that spend time developing that excellence before it finds the next pocket.
So in 2014, I'm going to "level up" and focus on improving adoption in my organization by working at the group level with teams and departments. This means spending less time training individuals and more time with teams, focusing less on how and explaining more of why, encouraging teams that "get it" to work as transparently as their jobs will allow, so that others can see them as examples, and prioritizing and communicating new features based on their ability to enhance group performance.
All of this is harder and takes longer, because you have to understand each team in terms of why it exists and what it's trying to accomplish. But in the long run I think it will be worth it, because groups are what turn individuals into organizations.
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Dennis Pearce has over 30 years experience in manufacturing, product development, quality, IT, and knowledge management. He is currently Enterprise Knowledge Architect for Lexmark International, Inc., focusing on internal and external collaboration strategies and systems. View Full Bio
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