The following scenario might sound familiar.
Someone in your organisation (you?) had the great idea to introduce social media to the workplace to reap some of the widely discussed benefits of Enterprise 2.0: user participation, knowledge sharing, barrier-free communication etc.
Decision makers had to be convinced, a project was established, finally, after long discussions, a platform was selected (depending on the flavour one of the following might be a typical suspect: Socialcast, Yammer etc.). It took only a little while to launch the platform (after all these platforms are quickly ready-to-go).
All in all, no obvious mistakes were made, potential users were easily able to get onto the new platform with their normal single sign-on password, no one was pressured to use it, accompanying communication was ok, promotors and tech champs promoted the platform with their peers, and indeed some users quickly started experimenting and using it.
BUT: adoption and use after the initial excitement phase never really took off… Sounds familiar?
Then you have discovered the natural barriers to adoption of networked platform technologies.
By and large, these barriers stem from a combination of the three following phenomena:
- Yet another platform (YAP): People are habitual beings. We normally don’t think consciously about our work, we just get on with it. In doing so, we draw on various tools to get the job done (and there are enough – or too many – already!). We use what is already there, what we know, what is familiar, what get’s the job done. Anything that is new or otherwise conspicuous just hinders our absorbed working on the job. In short, we have practices. And for new technologies/tools to be adopted sustainably, they need to get inside these practices. They need to become part of the routine work environment. But we all know that it is hard to get users to change their habits and try out something new. They might try it, but it is a hard second step for a (voluntary) tool to get inside the user practice. Typical remedies suggested in this context are: tools need to be easy-to-use, easily accessible etc. (well E2.0 platform typically fall in this category), and tools need to have a demonstrated benefit. Well, this is where the second phenomenon come into play.
- The dilemma of critical mass: Networked technologies (e.g. social networks, microblogging, but also wikis) have to put up with the well-known hen-and-egg problem: For an early adopter, the platform is not much use, as no-one is there and nothing happens (to be alone on a social network platform is quite sad actually). So, why hang around, if nothing happens? But if nothing happens, no one goes to this place, if no one goes to the place… Well, you get it.
- Nutzungsoffenheit: E2.0 platforms are open in a way that they generally do not precipitate any particular form of usage. Hence, users have to experiment and figure out how to make use of such platforms themselves. In an environment, where people are pressed for time and busy doing other things, that might not happen… (pls see my recent post on Nutzungsoffenheit for more background on the issue).
But what to do about it?
In a recent conference paper Alexander Richter (@arimue) and I have compared three Enterprise 2.0 implementation projects, all three aiming to implement and promote Enterprise Social Networking solutions. While two pretty much resembled the above (familiar) situation, one case gained wide-spread adoption. That case was the one of IBM’s Bluepages!
Now, what was different in that case? Well, IBM did something quite clever, which we subsequently named ‘co-evolution’.
The power of co-evolution: an instant user base.
IBM technically never launched their social networking platform. Instead, they have grown their solution from inside an existing service: in this case a rather static yellowpages-type service, namely the Bluepages. IBM simply launched their social networking feature-by-feature inside this already adopted platform. Because the service already had a user base and users already actively made use of the directory service, IBM was able to circumvent both the YAP phenomenon and the critical mass dilemma! And to a certain extent they also were able to kick-start the experimentation process, since people already had ways of using the old platform, so that they could easily interpret and see the value of new features, thereby making productive use of the openness (Nutzungsoffenheit).
As a consequence, social networking features were able to co-evolve with existing user practices. People were able to step by step get to know and use the new features; they did not have to experiment with a new platform environment and there were enough users instantly available to make use of the new features.
Co-evolution instead of competition
I bet you can see how clever this approach is. Instead of the new E2.0 service having to compete for the limited user attention span and against other established platforms (YAP), with co-evolution E2.0 can grow from inside existing platforms.
Of course, the challenge is to find those platform environments where piggybacking of E2.0 functionality makes sense (from the user point of view) and then to convince stakeholders in charge of these platforms to endorse your E2.0 ideas (which might be a challenge in itself).
Big platform vendors hold pole position
It is easy to see that in the above logic the big platform vendors hold the pole position in the race for E2.0 user bases. And in fact that is what is already happening – see Salesforce Chatter, Lotus Connections or the various Microsoft projects.
And at the end of the day, it will also be easier for many organisations to just add new features/modules to an existing licensing agreement then to launch a new platform. And as the above shows it might even benefit the users and overall adoption, too.
Interested in the full story? Read the full paper at Scribd.
Richter A and Riemer K 2009 ‘Corporate Social Networking Sites – Modes of Use and Appropriation through Co-Evolution’, 20th Australasian Conference on Information Systems ACIS 2009, Melbourne , Australia, 4th December 2009.
The cases discussed in the above paper came out of Alexander Richter‘s Dissertation: Richter, A. (2010): Der Einsatz von Social Networking Services in Unternehmen – Eine explorative Analyse möglicher soziotechnischer Gestaltungsparameter und ihrer Implikationen. Gabler Verlag, München.