The Promise of Social (The ESN edition)

Let’s take a moment and look at the idealistic, hopeful “promises” (the promise so many still speak of and fight for at least those who haven’t gone “corporate” so to speak) we saw emerge from around 2007 and compare them against the “common reality” we see in many organizations today.


Promise: Organization-wide transparency & openness
Common Reality: Organization-wide monitoring, measuring, judging and manipulating

Promise: B2B and B2C networks
Common Reality: Another sales channel

Promise: Social platforms to make work easier
Common Reality: Social platforms are another layer of work

Promise: Social Leadership
Common Reality: Executive broadcasting

Promise: Online customer communities
Common Reality: Customer service system

Promise: Platform owned by the workforce
Common Reality: Platform owned by IT

Promise: Increased connection for employee community building
Common Reality: Increased connection for expected employee work collaboration

Promise: Make work more human
Common Reality: Make humans work more (always connected is expected)


Of course this is not the truth for all organizations, some are meeting many of the promises but I don’t think that is the norm by a long shot. And this post isn’t meant to be a cry of surrender but rather a call to action. If you see it this way too, we need to be asking – Can we ever reach the true promise of (enterprise) social technology and if so, how?


The 702010 Interplay

One barrier that often presents itself when moving an organization towards a 702010 framework is that the natural interplay between all is overlooked, weakening the whole proposition. Informal, Social and Formal are wrongly dissected and discussed independently. The reality though is that all three 1. exist. 2. exist at varying levels and 3. work together constantly…  especially when we are conscious of it. All we can really do then is make it work together more easily and that’s done through a framework consisting of mindset changes, individual behaviors, organizational structures and technology augmentation.

I scrabbled together the image here in an effort to make this interplay more apparent. It’s important that I note that Informal Learning to me is less about learning in our work than learning through work. Meaning that yes, we can inject resources, “micro-learning” and search capabilities into the work context but it’s more about reflection and experiential learning; extracting learning as Charles Jennings has noted.  

  1. Social improves Formal Learning – social interaction works as a feedback loop for training efforts and should be encouraged. Outside of actual performance data – open, honest conversation about new knowledge and skills obtained in training situations is critical for improving formal learning efforts.
  2. Social informs Informal Learning – this relationship is very blurry as there is much overlap between social and informal learning. Conversation between people, and observations of one another’s behaviors leads to new application, ideas and reflection in the workflow.
  3. Informal inspires Social Learning – doing our actually work leads to new ideas about the work. Sometimes through eureka moments, sometimes through frustration. Work undoubtedly drives the most workplace conversation.
  4. Formal influences Informal Learning– training has a direct impact on doing (or ideally it does). Work-learning (informal) is greatly influenced by becoming faster or more efficient because of formal efforts. It’s also in the work itself that we can best reflect on new ideas and skills.
  5. Informal (through social) informs Formal Learning – here again, the blur between social and informal learning. Training can be positively modified due to both effective and ineffective work practices shared through social interaction.
  6. Formal inspires Social Learning – A great part of organizational Social Learning is in overtly sharing what works and what doesn’t with others. When training presents us with new ideas or skills we put them into practice and through conversation and modeling we can create greater contextual understanding for others.

As far as the components of a Framework I mentioned earlier, it starts with Mindsets where we help others realize the existence of 702010 and more see training as an expensive last resort, not the first option. Next it requires Individual Behaviors, If L&D, then serving as performance consultants not order takers and sniffing out then amplifying and enhancing where and when collaborative work is working. Additionally, we must examine Organizational Structures or systems. Many systems actually work against the efforts to enhance social and informal learning. In particular rewards, communication flow and management concepts need to be addressed. Finally,  Technology. Tech really only serves to augments this natural occurring system, it’s not a requirement. All social technology is primarily the same, working to support community, collaboration and sharing. Social is at the center of 702010 and social technology is the catalyst that really gets it moving.

Wherever you are in the 702010 discussion, it’s important to remember that 702010 is a principle and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A Tale of Two Socials

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. – Charles Dickens

Social has come a long way, the notion of its importance in business reborn through works like the Agile Manifesto and Cluetrain over 15 years ago and propelled first by Web 2.0 and then through enterprise social technology. But there now appears to be a division of direction.

On one hand social and social technology can extend and expand human interactions like nothing else. It can transform business from the industrial models, and change the very nature of work. Yet today much of the technology (and the vendors building and promoting it) may just be But such awful workers, and such awful work!helping business be a faster, a more effective business as usual. Simply, enterprise social is supporting today’s work, not creating tomorrows’.

Wasn’t there supposed to be more?

Social Has Gone Corporate More Than Corporate Has Gone Social
Early social brought diverse people, groups and ideas together. The tools were simple and allowed people to be creative with their use and that was often the draw; autonomy and creativity. This however was not what business was buying, even though it is just what they needed for the innovation they sought.

The reality is that conversation and idea sharing are messy things, difficult to guide and even more difficult to measure. Vendors either couldn’t articulate this or they didn’t bother since it didn’t fit into the purchaser’s mindsets and models anyway.

Goodbye Connection, Hello Collaboration!
Collaboration became king to the point today that many wrongly see “social”and “collaboration” as identical. Collaboration in itself isn’t a bad thing, what is though is having collaboration become expected rather than encouraged. The command and control message within the social technology medium is this:

“We bought this platform, now go use it.”

To appease leaders, and to better ensure the tool fit measures of success (i.e. ROI), vendors focused on dashboards, and monitoring and measurement were promoted mostly for tracking the most frivolous of activity.

The Rise of Chat
The growing use of chat and chat platforms today is an indicator of this “social” conformity. Chat doesn’t scale. Chat won’t get you to transform. Transformation takes much wider connection and collaboration. Business loves chat; it’s about team-work not net-work; it’s about supporting how work gets done today… in silos. Again, faster, more efficient business as usual.

The User is the Loser
Another sign of stagnation is the emphasis on the terminal goal of user adoption and not work adaptation (the measures mentioned before support this). Of course using a social tool is a step forward, so too is working out loud (a collaboration invitation) but adapting work in a social environment is what can change the very essence of the work being done, where power and authority reside and therefore alter the organization itself – the true promise of social.


Yes, we should be disappointed at the state of enterprise social but not surprised. Change is rarely revolutionary and business is business after all, with the goal of most being to win the game and far fewer out to change it. All is not lost however…

We need new skills not new features. We need more understanding and growth in Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) and new organizational structures for learning and working like 702010 frameworks to not merely influence but alter the systems that currently bind us. For these, look no further than the work of Harold Jarche (Personal Knowledge Mastery) and Charles Jennings (702010) for details on explaining individual and organizational approaches.

Ultimately the minority that believe and embrace the power of social to upend the 20th century systems are those that will conform to social, and not work to conform it (to their current models). It will take some very special people in leadership roles and not special technology; People that can cast aside the very systems that enabled them to become the decision-makers today, those who really know that what got us here, won’t get us there.


L&D Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

Yes, yes I know that many have said L&D shouldn’t be threatened by social and social technology. The argument being that a focus on social can actually improve L&D efforts by extending formal learning impact which is true and many in L&D leadership have made progress… but many more have not and only play lip service to the notion (I know, I’ve lived it). L&D has traditionally argued against social technology on the grounds that people will share the wrong information. But there is another reality and maybe the real truth behind the dismissing. At the end of the day, L&D does just what the executives want, a course. And when numerous employees have taken the course and then do not really perform any better, the blame is more often than not placed on the employees and not the solution.

The reason for this? A fine blend of two ingredients at the management level; the leadership echo chamber and a heaping cup of cognitive dissonance. Systems->Behaviors->Culture.

First, the echo. Executives build inner circles; a cushion of trust that, over time, membership in grants one the benefit of every doubt. The next is cognitive dissonance; the reconciliation of two competing beliefs where placing blame upon the employees is chosen over the idea that monetary investments in technology and “expertise’ was wasted. Both result simply in – It’s got to be them, not us.

“Look at all the work we did.”
“Look at the features and functions we built. You (boss) liked them.”
“You (boss) agreed with them.”
“The employees didn’t invest the time.”
“They chose to ignore the content.”
“They didn’t revisit the material.”
“It’s their fault.”

But the jig is up.

Like we have always known, social technology opens things up. Social technology leads to transparency. Social technology can challenge the status quo. It doesn’t take too many voices openly sharing comments about ineffectiveness to upend the whole game. More often than not though the channel directly to the employees is either too long and narrow, blocked by protective layers of hierarchy, and/or hindered by a culture of complacency. That’s a lot but still L&D, or rather traditional training-centric L&D, should be afraid of social technology, it’s permeating the organization. Once executives understand that social for social’s sake has value (which many vendors have abandoned) it will open the doors to the boardroom to all and change will be swift.

A Good Problem

Recently I did a webinar for Saba, a leading LMS vendor. They have a collaborative platform and invited me to speak with them on the principles and practices of organizational networks and collaboration. What I love most about giving a presentation comes usually at the end, it’s the time reserved for Q&A (although I like to field questions throughout, not always my choice however). Most questions asked about social efforts typically focus on how to get started, what the role of management should be or how to help leadership to be involved, etc. One question came however that I rarely hear:

“How do we shift a very healthy social network that is not focused on work to one that is?”

Interesting. People, using a corporate supported ESN, are sharing, collaborating and building their community but not around work or work related problems. For many this would appear as a good problem to have as there is no fear, the tech must be intuitive, there is trust, and there are personal relationships that transcend the organization. You’d assume with this established, the hard part is complete and collaboration, innovation and knowledge sharing will begin to flourish.

Or will it?

My initial response was for managers to invite employees to help solve sticky problems, like what I did here. Creating opportunities for employees to co-own issues of the company shows them other ways to use the tool beyond community and get into addressing work problem-solving together.

Of course we can only assume there was some type of communication about the intent of the technology when it was being employed, that being communication related to workforce collaboration and sharing. And if so, then why aren’t they?

It could be that they don’t want to collaborate out of fear that sharing and collaborating about work could draw criticism especially if information is wrong, contradicts organizational approaches or has been regularly ignored when coming from certain levels of the organization. Another thought could be that the nature of the work has not required collaboration to get done and done successfully. Similarly, and true in many settings, people have close proximity and collaborative tools then appear on the surface as an unnecessary layer of work. Finally, many now regularly use social media in their personal lives. It’s ubiquitous but few use it for work because the social web “out there” is different than the one “in here”. Employees either haven’t picked up on the notion of a different use and purposes as they have habitually started using an enterprise tool as they would Facebook.

As I’ve noticed and noted before (and this example supports it), 1. social carves its own path, social behavior cannot be channeled without risk of it drying up. Organizations would be wise to focus on modeling, encouraging and supporting over dictating use and 2. Your organization already has an enterprise social network. Social networks exist in your organization, with or without technology. You’re people connect and are connected. Social tech can make it easier but more so it reveals better how healthy that network really is – now what do you do with this information?

The organization behind the attendee’s question has many approaches to consider going forward and also has a rare opportunity to look under the hood and learn much about itself – a good problem to have in it’s own right.