As someone who runs a large number of global communities, I'm acutely aware that people are the platform. Many of us delight in the technologies and the services that enable social connections, but less of us stop and consider that without people none of these actually matter much. All the technologies and implementations in the world are not going to help us if we don't help people to change their behavior and embrace them too.

Our simplest form of search is not a text box in a web browser or some kind parametric search, it's simply one person asking another what they might think. It's something that comes naturally, right from the age most toddlers start asking, "why, why, why" incessantly. It's a human act simply to ask one another questions. I'm not suggesting that asking a fellow human being will result in a simple, precise and correct answer, but it's a start. People aren't scalable, and don't have infinite time to absorb seemingly infinite quantities of knowledge, and so search functionality helps. However, I think that we're missing something. Possibly many of our customers are too.

I'll expand a bit with an analogy using a simple, but different, example context from just over a year ago. A few senior leaders at a company were pondering why their employees don't seem to search the knowledge management systems that were provided. One of them answered with a simple decomposition that he had created based on the data being looked at. He simply said that there were those that searched and found what they were looking for, those that searched and could not find anything, and those that didn't bother to search at all! I guess it's the last category that is the most worrisome, although that might have been a reflection of the system as much as it could have been about the personalities involved.

Similarly, I get to see the many global interactions across a large number of communities that I'm responsible for. Not a day goes by where I don't witness at least one person asking for assistance, and very often getting a response in short order. While this is a great example of how structured communities can help, it troubles me that relatively few people do ask. At the scale of thousands, a question or two a day doesn't seem like very much. I look at the problem from two viewpoints:

  • As a community manager, I hope that people will communicate and collaborate more, making use of the collective knowledge of so many,
  • As a citizen of the Internet wondering if this is a problem other companies face 

This past week I was privileged to be working with some smart people from across the worldwide corporate landscape. We were exploring a number of social scenarios, trying to determine which might be of most value to the enterprise. We were using some prior work that had been performed by a number of groups. They had generated a comprehensive list of scenarios, investigated the skills required to deliver those and, of course, the associated technology solutions. Without a shadow of a doubt social networking is taking over enterprise culture, just as much as it has dominated the Internet in the last few years.

The technology challenges actually seem simpler than the cultural challenges. People in the IT industry are willing to try out plenty of things; and very often demand to be able to. Sometimes new technologies and ideas are met with skepticism, but generally those technologies that work are adopted. However I'm not quite so sure that this is true in the social realm. The behaviors don't seem to have changed much from those we've seen with our internal search engines.

Social is a disruptor, just as email was, and then IM (instant messaging) that followed. I started my career when email was just commencing its rise and TWAIN (technology without an interesting name) was popular. Now I see my world overrun by Social, Cloud and Things (Internet of Things sounds very 90's, so I say Things). Back then the transition from memos being delivered by senior people to junior people in a one-way, top down approach was the norm. Faxing was for B2B (business to business). I was an upstart teen in my first job implementing email and wondering why people couldn't simply email anyone else. Draconian rules were put in place, often under the guise of "manners", because the powers that be imagined email was simply letters delivered more quickly than regular email or faxes. They were looking for ROI-type benefits, not necessarily empowerment of their workforce. Email saved money and time, it wasn't meant to be the enabler we all have come to know it as. Email broke barriers. Those in the wood-paneled stratosphere could no longer function completely disconnected from their minions.

IM soon came along and made it even worse for the hold outs. Just as with email it appeared rapidly and seemingly saved time and improved productivity. More nice things that the analysts told business people as they over-analyzed yet another disruptive technology. In/Out boards were replaced by presence, and everyone had presence, not just the minions. People could "ping" people each other quickly and easily, and sometimes could be disruptive in doing so. Again the etiquette police popped-up, and once more and in good time a new and different equilibrium was established. Again we see hold outs in IM. There are people that just will not embrace it and consider it an interruption. IM caused unnecessary information hierarchies and choke points to flatten even more. People communicated more, and many artificial barriers were shattered.

I provided those examples from my own experiences to demonstrate just how disruptive older technologies were at their launches. It's actually not a whole lot different than the disruption that we're witnessing today.

Social is the present disruptor in the communication continuum. People know even more about each other than ever. Technologies such as Open Graph enable that, as do personalization and a seemingly unending willingness for people to share every iota of their lives with everyone else! There is no real information chain to follow anymore. 

People who hold onto knowledge as a source of power, and act as choke points that power broke between parties and the people who are seeking information, are rapidly becoming dinosaurs. We're starting to enter a world where it's not so much about who we know, but rather what value we bring to the others live. It will take some time to play out, but we're starting to see the evolution. It's gaining momentum too. Networking used to be a skill all of us needed just so that we could get past artificial barriers to find out information and have the right people alongside us to get things done. Business schools teach it as a key leadership skill. In our various walks of life it probably remains true, but in a work environment where people are working inside the same company trying to serve a common customer base and shareholders these types of things get in the way when they're propping up the unnecessary hierarchies. We're looking towards a future with frictionless engagement that comes without the loss of energy that delays in communication and unnecessary searching for information sources contribute to.

A key challenge for us is going to be to try to help others see that this new disruptor is something that is bigger than a faster email system and a fancy address book. It's fundamentally different. While there are all sorts of benefits that can be articulated one by one, like some kind of feature list, one of the greatest challenges can only be addressed by helping others to understand that social isn't an add-on that can be constrained by old rules. It is the new order. The choke points, unnecessary information hierarchies, and power bases people usually form will become obsolete. When networking is provided 'out-of-the-box' people will have to resort to adding value in ways that extend beyond who they know, and who they can "leverage". They will have to demonstrate people skills beyond the Machiavellian behaviors we witness so often in the corridors of power. Honesty, integrity, vulnerability, caring, real ability and a willingness to help others are quickly becoming the currency people will trade in as they work to get their jobs done. The true value of an exchange will become increasingly important. Charlatans will feel exposed, as will those who feel threatened by change and attempt to hang on for dear life. There will be resistance and pain, but this wave of change is relentless and it will prevail as all major technology have disruptions have previously. Our lives are changing. It's foolish, and often painful, to resist such sweeping changes.

We can foster this type of change by turning to our "search engines" first. Those include asking others for assistance in email distribution groups, social networks and elsewhere first. Of course, helping to provide answers and assistance will be just as important too. Taking the time to consider how we might help each other embrace the social networking phenomenon productively is probably as important as all the other knowledge and connections that we're able to share. All of us can be the change agents and friendly faces of a great potential future if we choose to do so. Join a community, don't be a troll, ask questions, and contribute your thoughts and answers.

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This post is governed under the site terms of use and by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license. Original work of Sarah Chana Mocke.You may republish this work as long as explicit credit is given to the author