Web-based social software makes it possible for people to discover connections and stay in touch on a global scale unlike email, face to face meetings, or any other medium in human history. In Who's on Your Team? Enterprise 2.0 and Team Boundaries, Larry Irons discusses a 2002 study on distributed work that's relevant for Enterprise 2.0 collaboration. The study found that members of geographically distributed teams have a fuzzy notion of the team boundaries (who was in, who was out), while collocated teams rarely disagreed. Irons suggests that wiki-style collaboration and social networking will make team boundaries fuzzier-and that's a good thing.
Professor Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School-he coined the term Enterprise 2.0-makes a similar point with his bullseye model, which talks about strong, weak, and potential ties connecting knowledge workers and their colleagues in an enterprise. McAfee suggests that one value of social software is making it easier to convert potential ties to strong or weak ties, and stay on top of what's happening in an extended network of connections you otherwise would not have made.
What is Emergent?
Collaboration, Productivity, Agility
Innovation, Non-redundant information, Network bridging
Social Networking Software
Efficient search, Tie formation
From How to Hit the Enterprise 2.0 Bullseye, Andrew McAfee HBS, Nov 2, 2007
How about applying the same kind of analysis to connections with customers?
Potential ties connect the world of potential customers and your product or service. It's the primary job of marketing to shape your product or service to meet a need, and find effective ways to communicate your offering to potential customers. Outward-facing blogs, networking, search based advertising, and a marketing strategy that makes it easy for potential customers to connect to your company are good examples of using social software help identify and connect with potential customers.
Weak ties connect customers and company employees where the customer may purchase the product (and even have a strong brand preference), but doesn't have regular interactions with individual employees of the company. The customer may like your company or product, but it would be misleading to say that customers and employees view themselves as members of the same "team"-even if marketing or sales folk like to use the term.
Strong ties connect customers and company employees where delivery of the product or service generally requires-or works better with-close day-to-day interaction. Traditional examples of strong ties include a law firm and its clients, a contractor and its subcontractors, or the purchaser of a complex engineered product such as an airplane or a customized software system. Non-traditional examples include a company bringing customers into shared collaboration spaces for intentional purposes such as support, product planning, and testing, as well as serendipitous unplanned interaction.
Although many of the notions of blog, wiki, tagging, and other social software carry over more or less directly from the public Web, strong ties often introduce the notion of borders and boundaries where there's a natural (or legal) expectation of privacy.
For example, if you work for a law firm there's a reasonable-and legal-expectation that only the client and members of the firm have access to the collaborative space reserved for work with each specific client. But a member of the firm may be working with many different clients at the same time, and need to keep on top of many external engagements-and a host of internal engagements that are shared within the law firm but invisible to all clients.
This "hub and spoke" collaboration pattern is common for business. If your company builds complex, customized products-like robotic systems sold to manufacturers-it's valuable to have separate collaboration spaces that connect each customer and your internal product development, sales, and marketing team. Everyone on the inside has a bird's-eye view across all customer-specific work. Each customer sees a dedicated collaboration space for private working communication-and can also read or participate in spaces that you intentionally open to all your customers or the public Web.
Some boundaries are firm and reliable; other boundaries need to become fuzzy or invisible, depending on who you are. See Borders, Spaces, and Places for some additional thoughts and examples.
Converting potential ties to strong or weak ties, and staying on top of what's happening in an extended network of connections you otherwise would not have makes just as much sense-and delivers a strategic advantage-when you start thinking of customers, as well as employees, as coworkers.
About the Author
Greg Lloyd is president and co-founder of Traction Software. Lloyd writes and speaks on hypertext, social software, and Enterprise 2.0 topics. For more information, see his blog at www.TractionSoftware.com.
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