Comment lines by Joey Bernal: A three-stage roadmap for social networking

Getting started with Web 2.0 and social networking can be a challenge for any organization. Identifying Web 2.0 patterns and creating a cohesive roadmap for implementation requires some degree of investment. Knowing where you are headed can help in putting together a long term plan. This content is part of the IBM WebSphere Developer Technical Journal.

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Anthony (Joey) Bernal (abernal@us.ibm.com), Executive IT Specialist, EMC

Author photo: Joey BernalAnthony (Joey) Bernal is an Executive IT Specialist with IBM Software Services for Lotus, and a member of the WebSphere Portal practice. He has an extensive background in the design and development of portal and Web applications. He is the author and co-author of several books, including Application Architecture for WebSphere; Programming Portlets 2nd Edition; Programming Portlets, the IBM Portal Solutions Guide for Practitioners; and from a previous life, Professional Site Server 3.0. He also contributes to his popular blog, Portal in Action.


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09 December 2009

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Communicate, collaborate, innovate

If you are getting started with a social networking strategy from scratch, you should know that iteration is the key to success. Getting social networking right within your organization requires a well-defined roadmap that outlines what you are trying to achieve. There are many patterns to choose from within the Web 2.0 and social networking space that you can implement in your roadmap. Some of these patterns include:

  • File sharing and collaboration.
  • Communities.
  • Rating, reviews, and voting.
  • Chat and presence awareness.
  • Tagging and tag clouds.
  • User profiles.
  • User network discovery.

These and other patterns are described in detail in my book, Web 2.0 and Social Networking in the Enterprise (Figure 1), available from IBM Press.

Figure 1. Web 2.0 and Social Networking for the Enterprise
Figure 1. Web 2.0 and Social Networking for the Enterprise

But while there might be a lot of available patterns that you want to define and implement, you should resist the temptation to try to do them all at once with a so-called "big bang" approach, which is something that too many organizations attempt. Any approach rooted in best practices would recommend a basic phased strategy, like communicate, collaborate, and innovate. This plan will enable you to grow into your social networking strategy, keep you aware of where you are positioned on your roadmap, and maintain the build-up to the next step in your social evolution.

Let’s look at the steps in this roadmap.

Communicate

Phase 1 for a social networking strategy is illustrated in Figure 2, which shows the basic patterns that can be implemented fairly easily using commercial or custom products or tools. The focus is really on increasing communication, but in new forms. People in an organization might be accustomed to official company communications being delivered to them in a one-way manner. However, opening up new channels and enabling two-way discussions loosens up communication, and demonstrates to employees, customers, and others that their opinions and concerns are important and valuable.

Figure 2. Phase 1: Communicate
Figure 2. Phase 1: Communicate

Information becomes more fluid and easily digestible as wikis and blogs begin to form within an organization, and provide ideas to both internal and external users. Additional information about the enterprise becomes available as thought leaders and others in the company open up and discuss more about what they do and how they do it. This component often surprises people because much of this type of information is, generally, not very accessible when you are bound to more traditional kinds of communication. It is common to try to seed some of this new communication by encouraging experts and leaders to share their thoughts and ideas by publishing early and often.

Collaborate

Phase 2 of your strategy provides for collaboration and integrates new features and functions into the environment, such as networking discovery, expert location, communities, and activities. The focus here is on two-way collaboration between the organization and targeted participants, and also on communication between participants. This is where true interaction starts to occur, adding value that can best be measured as it affects your organizational processes and efficiency. Figure 3 shows how some of these patterns can start to take effect within the community.

Figure 3. Phase 2: Collaborate
Figure 3. Phase 2: Collaborate

None of these existing patterns are bound to a particular area or set of users. Figure 2 simply shows where patterns might emerge. Communities can happen both internally and externally. In fact, the idea of a community is such a broad concept that it can occur anywhere -- and everywhere -- at once.

Innovate

You might imagine that there could be several months between Phase 1 and the release of Phase 3 functionality. Beyond that, it could conceivably be several months or years for full adoption of social networking tools. When you have passed the first two phases, however, real innovation can transform the way you do business. Adopting and embracing a full, innovative Web 2.0 and social networking strategy enables you to implement many of the next generation of patterns (Figure 4) that can be adopted through Phase 3.

Figure 4. Phase 3: Innovate
Figure 4. Phase 3: Innovate

The key here is that implementing ideas and products should be iterative, in the sense that you do not try to do too much at once. In fact, the capabilities that come out of Phase 1 or Phase 2 might actually be sufficient for some organizations, depending on their own unique factors and objectives, and a staged approach enables you to make that determination. A staged approach also lets you examine what you have achieved; because of the nature of what you are doing and the somewhat cloudy measurements of success, you need to be able to determine if you are headed in the right direction with some components.

There is also a bit of a mix-and-match situation here as you define the right approach for your organization. For example, presence awareness (finding others online) might be integrated into applications in Phase 1, enabling instant communication with subject matter experts and thought leaders across multiple teams.


Defining goals and business requirements

It has been said that implementing a social networking strategy in an organization that does not value collaboration will fail, because social networking is fundamentally based on collaboration and knowledge sharing. Although this kind of statement might be thought of as a tactic to help ensure that leadership at the highest levels support social networking efforts, there is some truth to the assertion that if your company is not well versed in collaboration techniques, your social networking and collaboration strategy will need more investment to be successful. So, if this is the case, how can you succeed? In the most general terms, you need to simply:

  • Make smart decisions along the way.
  • Remain open to change.
  • Ask others within your organization to remain open to change.

Perhaps these are easier said than done, but not succeeding at these points doesn't mean you are finished; it only means you need to change your strategy to better encourage your users to adopt the tools you are providing:

  • Find the right sponsor

    Having a good executive sponsor for any project is a great thing. In many cases, it is essential for success.

    An executive sponsor is someone who supports or champions the effort, and who can break down social or organizational barriers when the team encounters them. Social networking projects have additional requirements, including having a sponsor that is outside your targeted audience. In other words, if you are running a pilot for folks within IT, then having the CIO as an executive sponsor would be beneficial. If you are releasing functions across lines of business or departments, you might have to go a little higher in the management structure. It is important that your sponsor be truly committed to the value of the project to ensure that funds and support are not in jeopardy if adoption is not immediate. Make it understood that this is a long-term project that will help change the way the organization works, rather than something that will bring an immediate ROI. The ultimate objective here is increased communication, knowledge sharing, and collaboration, with all the positive things they can bring: increased communication and sharing with customers, partners, and departments (and in small teams), understanding where expertise and knowledge resides in the organization, finding specific patterns that enable informal information to emerge in the form of blogs, wikis, and forums.

    It is sometimes said that you don’t know what you don’t know. Social networking provides a means for information that you didn’t know existed to emerge.

  • Provide the right value

    Equally important to having the right sponsor is to implement the patterns that you think your organization will use. Talk to people in yourorganization to find out what is important to them. Blogs might provide an outlet to creative individuals who want to share ideas. Teams might be looking for a way to collaborate on documents or other files. Even if you do purchase a social networking product such as IBM Lotus Connections, you might not want to implement all its features immediately. Determine what is important and decide what you can support initially, because the initial tasks will help define your goals. Remember that there are technical implications to consider when it comes to robust and responsive services you can provide.

  • Target the right audience

    Finally, you have to target the right audience for your initial launch, which might be nothing more than a small proof of concept. I will warn you, however, that for some patterns, small might not be the right approach; for widespread adoption, you need to start with a much larger audience. Adoption is typically slow, and if your target audience is small, your effort may never gain enough critical mass to be of value to an organization. Consider a pilot of 100 people: if only ten percent try the tool, they might find little value with only nine other people working with them. If you target a pilot toward several thousand people, however, you have a much better chance of gaining critical mass with that proposed ten percent adoption rate.

    Also, consider the technical depth and breadth of your audience. Targeting a technically savvy audience will probably result in better adoption; these users understand how technology is changing and are often more apt to try improving the way things get done. After you have some tools running successfully with this audience, it becomes easier to increase the user base and enable incremental adoption of what are now common patterns within the enterprise.

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