The most surprising thing about this list of 25 “exceptional talents building today’s social businesses”

EIU 25 Social Business LeadersThis week, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a list and I was on it. That was one surprise. I was also surprised at the range of contributions represented. There were people who founded companies, created famous social media campaigns, and even a few trying to change their firms from the inside, like me.

The most surprising thing for me, though, was who was missing.

Some of the most significant changes in social business

The list is made up of people “who are successfully applying social technologies, principles and strategies within organisations around the world.” At least 7 of the 25 people are involved with social media and marketing. But the range of contributions goes well beyond that.

“Social business is about much more than social media. A social business is an organisation whose culture and practices encourage networks of people—employees, partners, customers and others—to create business value, and, ultimately, increase revenue and profits.”

There are people on this list who are genuinely reshaping how we think about business.

  • Juliana Rotich is a co-founder of Ushahidi, “a not-for-profit digital platform that connects and gives a voice to communities facing social, political or medical duress in Kenya and beyond.”
  • Tony Hsieh founded Zappos, the online shoe company sold to Amazon for $1 billion, and created an iconic customer service culture.
  • Lin Bin founded Xiaomi, whose radical approach to openness helped the company become China’s third-largest smartphone maker in only four years.

The social media marketers are changing things too. Take a look at this video from TD Bank, where Wendy Arnott is head of social media and digital marketing: Sometimes you just want to say thank you #TDThanksYou. One of the commenters noted: “This is the first time a bank commercial had made me cry.” I watched it 3 times.

My accomplishments are much more modest than Juliana, Tony, or Lin and I’m not marketing to consumers around the world. But I do aspire to help millions of people find meaning and fulfillment at work, starting with the employees of a big German bank.

Why people I admire aren’t on the list

Changing any organization requires passion, persistence, and luck. When I started exploring social business ideas, I met people who were already changing their companies like I hoped to change mine. They were smart and innovative and years ahead of me. But they’re not on this list and that was my biggest surprise in seeing it. They shaped my thinking in so many ways but simply didn't have some of the luck I had.

Their company/division/group was re-organized. 

Their sponsor left.

They were forced to change platforms, derailing their entire effort.

The experiments they tried didn’t work.

They got tired.

The truth is, if you’re trying to change how things work, you probably won’t. So many good people I know simply couldn’t continue on the path they started on. But I hope they try again. My friends involved in creating social businesses have the passion and capabilities to bring about great changes in the world, and we need them to persevere.

The next list

When I think of the challenges facing people trying to change complex, emergent systems like corporations, I think of Margaret Wheatley’s So Far From Home. She writes about persevering in the face of those challenges – not for the ultimate outcomes but for the goodness of the work itself, for the people involved, and for the chance, however slim, of ultimately creating a better future.

“We need to continue to persevere in our radical work, experimenting with how we can work and live together to evoke human creativity and caring. Only time will tell if our efforts contribute to a better future. We can’t know this, and we can’t base our work or find our motivation from expecting to change this world.”

There will be other lists in the future and I hope to see more of my friends on them. By then, I may have helped many more people or I may not appear on lists at all. All I know is I will have tried, and will keep trying.

Creating places we care about

You’ll notice certain signs when people at your company stop caring. They might be physical things. Torn seats in the cafeteria that never seem to get fixed. The receptionist desk that’s still there, empty, long after they laid off the receptionist.

Or the signs might be subtler. The routine silence and lack of eye contact in the crowded elevators. The insidious acceptance of bureaucracy and waste because, well, that’s just the way things are around here.

But take heart. Even if you recognize these signs, there’s still something you can do.

"Entropy made visible"

What’s happened to companies is what has happened to many urban and suburban areas. James Kunstler, who authored a history of American suburbia and urban development, described the consequences as “entropy made visible.” He points out the block-long, windowless civic building. The too-wide street devoid of pedestrians. The gray school surrounded by barbed wire and a lone shrub. In his TED talk, he notes how, historically, creating places people cared about was made possible by a culture of civic design - a body of knowledge, methods, skills, and principles that “we threw in the garbage when...we decided we didn’t need that any more.”

“When you degrade the public realm, you will automatically degrade the quality of your civic life and the character of all the enactments of your public life and communal life that take place there...

We can’t overestimate the amount of despair we are generating with places like this...Places that people don’t want to be in. Places that are not worth caring about.”

And the same is true for our corporations. We discarded some of the age-old principles of what motivates and engages people. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten we should be designing organizations for the benefit of the human beings in them.

Gradually, then suddenly

This is something that happens to firms over time. Seth Godin used the phrase “gradually and then suddenly” to describe “how companies die, how brands wither.”

“...every day opportunities are missed, little bits of value are lost, customers become unentranced. We don't notice so much, because hey, there's a profit. Profit covers many sins. Of course, one day, once the foundation is rotted and the support is gone, so is the profit. Suddenly, apparently quite suddenly, it all falls apart.

It didn't happen suddenly, you just noticed it suddenly.”

Something we can all do

Caring enough to contribute & connect

Luckily, caring at work doesn’t have to come from the HR department or the CEO. Although the place I work in has a lot in common with other large firms, every day I get to see a bit of magic from individuals on our collaboration platform. Without changing the furniture, we’ve created the best office design for people caring and wanting to work together. It's a virtual place that, unlike most office space, is people-centered. It's a space where people say:

“it’s easier to connect with people.”

“you can bring your full self to work” 

“it allows people to show their humor and warmth”

Amidst the usual corporate systems and processes, we have people who care. They’re Working Out Loud, actively trying to make work better. They're pointing out #brokenwindows and offering solutions. They’re celebrating the work of others (especially on #thankyouthursdays). Our streams are full of people leading with generosity and contribution - and they care even more as a result.

“Being able to help someone you haven’t met or who is very far away is amazing.”

Whether or not you have such a platform, you can have some of these experiences. They all start with individuals caring enough to participate, connect, and use the voice they have for something positive. The medium for that can be your next email, your next meeting, or your next trip in the elevator.

Gradually, then suddenly. Seth Godin noted that the process can work for good, too.

“The flipside works the same way. Trust is earned, value is delivered, concepts are learned. Day by day we improve and build an asset, but none of it seems to be paying off. Until one day, quite suddenly, we become the ten-year overnight success.

This is the way it works, but we too often make the mistake of focusing on the 'suddenly' part. The media writes about suddenly, we notice suddenly, we talk about suddenly.

That doesn't mean that gradually isn't important. In fact, it's the only part you can actually do something about.”

Just as things can decay, things can change for the better for you and for your firm. It can start with you, caring enough to contribute and connect.

A different kind of corporate networking event

Old-fashioned networking

There we were, over 100 of us, gathered at a networking event. And it struck me that people have been holding these kinds of events, in the same format, for perhaps 50 or even 100 years. 

Groups of 10 sat at large round tables and listened to a panel talk about their networking experiences. Then the people at each table introduced themselves and discussed a few questions. Some people handed out business cards before they left.

True, we did meet some people and we did talk about networking. But we didn’t actually change how people develop relationships or make any meaningful connections.

 “There has got to be a better way,” I thought.

“How did you get your current job?”

One of the questions we discussed was “How did you get your current job?” And the answers underscored how most people take a scattershot approach to networking and really do play career roulette.

A recent finance graduate, for example, happened to attend our company’s event on campus and wound up in an arcane business area. Another person’s company was acquired and so now she had a new boss at a new firm. My favorite was an experienced person whose prior business was shut down. He got his current job after bumping into an old acquaintance at a bar. 

Old Acquaintance: “What are you up to?”  

Experienced Person: “I’m looking for something new.”

Old Acquaintance: “Oh, I think a friend of mine is hiring at his firm. Are you interested?”

Experienced Person (to the table): “So I sent him a note, and here I am.”

Everyone agreed that building a network is important and they all wanted to do something about it. But what?

The same themes, over and over and over

As people described their experiences with networking, the common theme seemed to be frustration:

“I don’t have any time.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“I know I should follow up but I don’t.” 

Ironically, the event just increased their frustration. It further reinforced what they already knew ("I should be networking more!") without providing them with a better way of doing it. After the event, everyone would still struggle with time, technique, and a lack of a system or new habits.

That motivated me to make some simple adjustments to the next event I’d participate in.

5 ways to make networking events better

The best networking experiences I’ve ever been a part of are dinners hosted by Keith Ferrazzi. Aside from the food and drink, the venue and the small tables designed to promote better interactions, he also gets people to know and care about each other. And he does that by sharing personal information and asking probing questions. At one of his dinners, you can do more than meet people. You can make friends for life.

What if our corporate networking events were more like that? Even if you can't control the food, the venue, or the tables, here are 5 simple things you can do to make networking events better.

  1. Prepare rich profiles: Prepare in-depth profiles of everyone in the room, including links to their LinkedIn pages or other public profiles. 
  2. Ask humanizing questions: In the profile, include questions such as “What are you passionate about?” and “What’s your superpower?” to avoid people simply providing their corporate title and work history. Provide a real example of an interesting profile.
  3. Allow time to explore: Share the profiles ahead of time so everyone can look for people they’d like to meet at the event. Make sure they can access the profiles during the event, too, and give them time to browse.
  4. Offer helpful nudges: At least one person should be a designated match-maker, making introductions based on things they’ve noticed from carefully reviewing all of the profiles. (“You two were both in the Peace Corps! You should definitely know each other.”
  5. Build in a little structure: Help people with follow-ups by structuring specific actions into the event. It could be “Make 3 new LinkedIn connections during the event”. (Or, better yet, use your company’s social platform if you have one.) Or “Schedule a lunch & 2 coffees before the night is over.” 

Next time, instead of having everyone just talk about networking, make sure they can actually practice it.

What do you think? What made your great networking experiences great? What would you do to make your next event better?

Working Out Loud in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate in Berlin I’m sitting on a plane heading back to NY, reading notes from 70+ people about working out loud.

I met those people at the Social Business Collaboration Summit in Berlin. There, with attendees from companies as diverse as IKEA, KPMG, and Asian Paints, I got the chance to ask:

“Did they see the benefits of working out loud?”

“Were they having difficulties helping people at their firms change how they work?”

Here’s what they said.

The easy part: benefits

Contributions during the World Cafe

Groups of 15 or so convened for 30 minutes each in a World Cafe format. After a brief description of working out loud - “making your work visible and narrating your work in progress” - each group quickly listed a series of benefits:

  • makes it easier to spot duplication and identify collaboration opportunities
  • improves quality and timeliness by getting feedback in the early stages of work
  • makes it easier to discover and develop knowledge and expertise
  • helps teams, particularly global teams, feel closer
  • helps break silos and connect the dots across teams
  • fosters innovation by allowing more people to use knowledge in different ways
  • gives people control of their reputation and taps into intrinsic motivation

One woman, with a lovely accent and a sense of the poetic, added “it helps your work develop new routes.”

A simple example from IKEA

"Finding competence"

A woman in the communications division at IKEA told a story of how working out loud helped her team “find competence in unexpected places.” In her area, people around the world have similar jobs managing their local communications sites. Every month, they’d get on a conference call to share information but it wasn’t very effective. The timezones made the call inconvenient for some. And not everyone was comfortable speaking in English. So the calls were dominated by those most confident and awake.

Then the team decided to augment their calls by using their new social platform. And, all of a sudden, “someone who never said anything on the phone was making all these contributions online.” He shifted from being invisible to “becoming influential and a leader in the group.”

“Great,” I said to the others, “now how many stories do you have like this at your firms?”

An uncomfortable truth

As you might expect, most people at a social business conference are used to working out loud themselves. But the number of people doing so at there firms remains woefully low. Even getting people to simply login to a collaboration platform remains a challenge.

This seemed to be true across industries and cultures. Why? All we had were theories and anecdotes:

“Maybe people are too busy.”

“Maybe they’re uncomfortable talking about their work in public.” 

“Maybe their managers suppress them.” 

“Maybe they’re simply surrounded by people working a certain way and it’s too difficult to work differently.”

“Maybe some people would rather be invisible at work.”

So while more and more companies have social collaboration projects, the pace of change is very, very slow.

Getting started

Evolving the way we work

In answering the question “What can we do?” the groups were both positive and practical. Most agreed that it’s about developing new habits. So that meant using the same techniques that work for changing other habits.

  1. Make it simple. Just changing someone’s home page can make the platform seem much more accessible. And curated suggestions of people, groups, and content relevant to a person’s division and location make the value more apparent.
  2. Start small. Create situations - such as town halls and other events - where people can find material or ask a question and feel the benefits themselves.
  3. Make it safe. Give every team a private online space to make posting seem less risky.
  4. Leverage social influence. Spend more effort on getting influential people, especially senior management, to model the behavior.
  5. Make it relevant. Provide more content and more integration with daily processes so it’s part of the daily work and not yet another thing to do.

Are we there yet?

After a few years of attending conferences like this one in Berlin, we’ve moved from just talking about the possibilities to having firms of all kinds actively working to change things. We’ve enabled a first wave of experimentation and have our first meaningful sets of stories across a wide range of companies. But how long will it take until a critical mass of people in large firms of working differently?

Later in the week, at a meet-up of early adopters in Frankfurt, I said I thought it would take 3-5 years. When I asked people in the room what they thought, the majority said “a generation.”

Time to get back to work.

The doctor at the fast food convention

Really? Can you imagine being a doctor at a fast food convention, trying to change the way people eat? Even if the attendees know the food is bad for them, they’ll be surrounded by it and by other people who eagerly eat it, so they'll eat it too.

To try to help them, you’ll race around frantically, telling them about the benefits of eating right and exercising. Some will nod their heads. “Yes, we really should.” Then they’ll go back to doing what they usually do.

That’s what it can feel like when you talk about making work better in large companies.

Most people know there are better ways of working. They know their daily practices aren’t good for them. They know they’re not engaged. But for most of them it just feels too difficult to change.

So what do you do? Give up on all those unfulfilled people?

The Work Revolution Summit

Yesterday, I was fortunate to be admitted to the Work Revolution Summit where I could  “join leading entrepreneurs, startup investors, futurists, organizational designers, and technology experts to fundamentally re-design the way we work.”

theworkrevolution

One of the organizers was Jessica Lawrence, who is both former CEO of the Girl Scouts and organizer of the NY Tech Meetup for entrepreneurs. One of the objectives of the summit was to help start-ups maintain “a ‘human’ company culture that helps both the employees and the company reach their full potential as the organization grows and scales.” And Jessica gave a fascinating talk about trying to change the culture while she was CEO.

There were several other great speakers, including Seth Godin. And I got to ask him a question about what to do when your are, in essence, a doctor at the fast food convention.

A question for Seth Godin

Seth GodinSeth Godin’s daily blog has done more to change how I approach work than anything else. And each time I hear him speak, I’m inspired to do more. This time, I had the chance the to ask him “What do you do when you’re preaching change and and it seems like only a small minority is interested in actually changing?”

He told me something that I know is right but I’ve had trouble putting into practice. Don’t preach to everybody. Don’t try to reach everybody. Many people are simply trying to hold onto their job and it's too scary/hard/uncomfortable for them to do something different. Instead, find the people who are ready and eager for change. Connect them to build a tribe who wants to change. And equip and empower that tribe to extend the movement (giving them credit and control when they do).

A shift in tactics

The first NYC Marathon in 1970

I was 6 years old when the first NYC Marathon took place in 1970. Only 127 people ran that race. Only 55 finished. And about 100 people watched. No one I knew heard of it. No one I knew ran at all. At the time, running a marathon seemed ridiculous.

41 years later, almost 47,000 people finished and almost 2 million people lined up along the route. It’s become the largest marathon anywhere in the world. And even I completed one.

Running marathons didn’t spread because Fred Lebow, the original organizer, went around telling everyone about the benefits of running. Instead, all 6 sources of influence came into play. Over time, there was more help to get you started and more motivation at the personal, social, and structural levels. More running books, more equipment, more races, more clubs, more visible rewards.  Over the course of a generation, more and more people just did it.

Growth of a tribe

So of course changing how people work isn’t simply about telling people. We’ll have to keep making it easier to work out loud. Keep writing about it and teaching it. Keep connecting advocates and equipping them to extend their own networks.

Just now, I joined the work revolution where I pledged "I will do whatever I can within my sphere of influence to promote workplaces that are profoundly human and deeply meaningful."

It may take a generation, but we need to keep running.

Why I wear a pink shirt on Thursdays

A small gesture My friend’s father has been a hostage for over 6 years. In a few months, he’ll be the longest-held international hostage in American history. And you probably don’t know his name.

He is Bob Levinson. I work with his daughter, Sarah. And this is a story about little things, big things, and something beautiful that exists inside even the largest corporations.

Pink Shirt Thursdays

For years, Sarah’s family has been trying to raise awareness so someone will act to free her father. Bob was working in Iran when he was kidnapped and, since then, there have been occasional videos and reports so they know he’s alive. (You can read more details here.)

In the 1990s, when her father worked in Miami, he started a tradition of wearing pink shirts on Thursdays and ultimately the entire office did it. So Sarah decided to try and get people at our office to do it, too.

“The goal is to get as many people as possible to start wearing pink shirts regularly on Thursday and then publicize that to whoever might listen. It would be great if we could even ask people to post pictures of their teams wearing their pink shirts...so I can collect and share all the images”

Then Sarah sent me a note asking if I would write a blog about it on our social platform at work.

Would it matter?

I used to think small gestures didn’t matter. When I’d see people raising money with bake sales and the like, I’d think “you’d be better off just writing a check.” My cynicism would be piqued on seeing people changing their avatars or re-tweeting expressions of support. And writing a blog post seemed trivial compared to the gravity of her father’s situation.

But what I completely overlooked is the value of solidarity. The value of someone doing something, even a small something, for someone else.

A little thing like choosing a certain shirt color on Thursday could lift someone’s spirits for a moment, or even a day. Collectively, we could give Sarah and her family a story for a lifetime. And each time someone mentioned our pink shirt, we could tell them the story of Bob Levinson.

What happened next

Help Bob LevinsonSo I wrote a short blog post. At first, there were a few initial comments of support. Then, the following Thursday, a woman in Germany posted the first photo of herself in a pink shirt. Then another person posted and soon came the first team photo. Word was starting to spread.

“Let’s turn this place pink!” someone commented.

Within a few weeks, there have been almost 5000 views and 200 comments. Photos of more and more teams from around the world all wearing pink. Of the catering staff in pink. Of families in pink. Even someone on holiday got their group of 18 people to all wear pink.

And in addition to the photos, people began sharing their own stories of loss and solidarity. They were expressing their support for Sarah and her family as well as their sense of connection with each other, of our shared humanity even in the workplace.

“I can’t even begin to understand what you and your family must be going through, but what I can do is get involved, show support and help raise awareness.”

“...it has certainly made me more aware of my colleagues and how we can support each other”

“It was with enormous joy that I have read every caring post in this campaign. This is one of those moments when I feel very proud of working here”

Sarah posted a collage on her family's Facebook group “Help Bob Levinson” and keeps thanking people on our platform at work.

“It means so much to keep seeing this sea of pink shirts on Thursdays.”

Yes, it matters

Support matters

The week I wrote the post, wondering if it would make a difference, my 3 year old son broke his arm. We rushed to the emergency room and, after 15 stressful hours, he had surgery. When friends and family found out, they sent me messages of support and best wishes for a successful recovery. They commented on Facebook. And while those messages didn't help Hudson's arm hurt less or heal any faster, they absolutely helped me and my wife. Knowing other people cared made a difference.

When I look at Sarah’s Facebook page, the stories her family shares are so bittersweet. There are wonderful memories coupled with the pain of loss and what might have been. I also see the support from a network of thousands of people. And that matters.

So I wear a pink shirt on Thursdays, sending Sarah my own message that I care and wish her the best. And that I hope her dad is safely home very, very soon.

The Value of Collaboration #5: Using purposeful communities to optimize spend

Finding & fixing holes at work In some cases, collective efficiency is about specific kinds of cost reductions - printing, mobile bills, service costs. But sometimes it can be about a general technique you can apply to a wide array of costs.

This post describes how purposeful communities can make improvements that could easily be in the 10s of millions.

The problem

As a firm gets larger, there’s usually more distance between the people who pay for things and the people who use those things. That’s certainly true for personal consumption (printing, etc) and previous posts described ways to reduce that kind of spend.

But the problem is even bigger when it relates to consumption at the team level or at the departmental or firm level. The cost of that server or database license, for example, is something that individuals don’t think about or have much control over. They just order it to get their job done. (The government mechanic doesn’t want to spend extra for a hammer, but he has no idea how to procure a cheaper one.)

To control costs, firms typically focus on policies, contracts, governance processes, and vendor management groups. While these approaches can be useful, they typically don’t leverage the knowledge of people actually using the products and services. Now, it’s easier than ever to do that.

The solution

One way to bridge the gap between a firm's consumers and payers is to organize communities around specific kinds of work. Then, you influence people in the communities to look for ways they can eliminate waste or otherwise get more value for money the firm spends related to the work they do.

Two specific kinds of communities include role-based communities of practice and vendor communities. For example, an IT department would have communities organized around specific roles such as developers, testers, and project managers. As a natural part of doing the work - e.g., posting questions, sharing lessons - community members can expose process deficiencies and work out better ways of optimizing the use of shared resources.

Another way to organize communities would be to connect people who use the products or services of a particular vendor. Far too often, it’s the vendor who knows more about how their products are being used inside the firm and they’re motivated to increase revenue, not reduce costs. So if Oracle, say, is one of your top providers, you’d want to identify and connect your top users of Oracle products and have them actively participate in troubleshooting, shaping standards, and evaluating the need for new products and services.

There's a wide variety of ways communities can find value. (Nick Milton identified “17 value delivery mechanisms for Communities of Practice”, from solving problems to collaborating on purchasing to exchanging equipment to coaching.) You can think of these communities acting as centers of excellence for every role or vendor. Except these aren’t distinct groups, separated from the work and formed by appointment. Instead, they’re made up of people deeply embedded in the work and formed by those with the most to contribute.

What’s it worth?

The benefits will range wildly from the intangible to the incredible. At Shell, for example, their communities of practice helped avoid drilling “dry wells” and saved the company in excess of $100 million.

Examples I’ve seen firsthand include a case in which started with a post in a testing community about the acquisition of expensive software. The subsequent discussion prompted members to form a working group which came up with a better licensing arrangement and saved several million dollars. In other cases, teams avoided spending hundreds of thousands on new equipment because experts in the community solved performance problems shared online.

Like the Shell example, hard dollar savings in a few communities could add up quickly with even a few wins. Large firms can easily spend more than $50 million with major vendors like Oracle, IBM, and HP. And so connecting the experts in your firm who are most familiar with how those vendor offerings are used can make it possible to find your own "dry wells".

In addition to the big wins, we also see many, many small improvements with harder-to-quantify benefits. Things like faster access to expertise by new joiners, shorter problem resolution times, and incremental process improvements.

In one case, for example, a community member posted a simple complaint about poor response times from a 3rd party service provider. The post received 2500 views and comments from dozens of teams sharing their own stories of waste and frustration. That made the problem and its consequences so visible that management announced changes to the vendor engagement.

When management announced the change in the community, their post received over 4000 views and dozens of comments like “thank you for making us more productive”. How much did we save by improving the productivity of dozens of teams and turning their frustration into gratitude?

Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Etienne Wenger, who’s the intellectual father of communities of practice, wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2000 about the 3 reasons why they aren’t more prevalent.

“The first is that although communities of practice have been around for a long time—for centuries, in fact—the term has just recently entered the business vernacular. The second is that only several dozen forward-thinking companies have taken the leap of “installing” or nurturing them. The third reason is that it’s not particularly easy to build and sustain communities of practice or to integrate them with the rest of an organization. The organic, spontaneous, and informal nature of communities of practice makes them resistant to supervision and interference.”

That last reason is the one we’ve struggled with the most. Communities aren’t so much about systems as they’re about people. People need recognition, role models, support, and much more to maintain the structure and vitality found in successful communities. And so we've found it difficult to build and sustain role-based and vendor communities.

But they're worth it.

The Value of Collaboration #4: Reducing the cost of internal communications

How much does your intranet cost? The Intranet

In addition to the core infrastructure, add all the different applications - content management systems, Sharepoint, blogs, wikis, etc. Then add the engineers that customize the tools to make them look like modern websites. Then add the people dedicated to producing the newsletter and e-zines and other corporate content.

How much does all of that cost? You probably have no idea.

It turns out that most large firms can comfortably reduce their total intranet spend by $3 million to $7 million if you effectively use modern social platforms and practices.

The problem

In an era where anyone can cheaply and easily publish their own book, ebook, or blog - where even the best newspaper are cutting costs while citizen journalism is on the rise  - most firms are spending far too much money on tools and specialists dedicated to communications.

If I want a beautiful, mobile-friendly, professional website complete with social features, analytics, and more, I can create one in a few minutes for free. Maybe add a few dollars a year to eliminate ads or select a premium design.

Now try and do that at work. You’ll be pointed to a variety of poorly integrated tools, most of which will require customization to have basic features like comments and customizable pages. And that customization, multiplied by 100s or even 1000s of websites, adds up. (A popular statistic, cited here and here, is that for every dollar a firm spends on Sharepoint licenses, they spend $6 to $9 on customization.)

Worse, there are a lot of people involved in producing and governing content. Traditionally, we’ve relied on dedicated communications professionals tell employees the news of the organization. They’re often gatekeepers, too, deciding whether you’re even allowed to have a presence on the intranet. Now, though, the news spreads much more quickly and cheaply, and Communications departments must either be smaller or change what they do.

The solution

The solution involves replacing traditional intranet tools with a social platform and replacing traditional Comms practices with a greater reliance on employees publishing and sharing information.

A modern social platform makes self-publishing at work as easy as it is at home. They tend to support a wide range of content (sites, documents, video, photos, blogs, discussions). Search works extremely well. And the best ones have social and mobile features as core elements of the platform. In all the benchmarking we’ve done, almost every firm that introduced a modern platform has eliminated old tools and greatly reduced their use of dedicated staff or design firms for customization.

And when it comes to content, you may still need people to craft the latest org announcement or news about quarterly earnings. But, since around 2008, people have increasingly relied on social filters for their news rather than professional curators. It’s the popularity and ease-of-use of social platforms that are the cause of that shift.

When everyone can publish, the information flow in your organization can be more relevant, more real-time, and cheaper than ever before.

What’s it worth?

The reduction of communications costs comes in 3 areas.

Consolidating the intranet: Firms I’ve spoken to have eliminated up to a dozen or more  applications and hundreds of websites. That reduces software licenses, hardware, and engineers who develop and support the tools. In all cases I know of that have pursued an intranet consolidation strategy, the savings exceeded $1 million.

Customization: This is one of the most insidious and often the most poorly-controlled costs because it’s typically found in pockets throughout the firm without any central oversight. Combined, my estimate is that large firms spend between $2 million to $10 million on intranet customization by staff and by 3rd-party design firms. (My own group, for example, once spent over $100,000 customizing Sharepoint to support our communities of practice. I’ve heard of internal sites at some firms costing 5x or even 10x that amount. And a large firm might have 100s of groups doing customization of some kind.)

The era of spending large sums tweaking intranet sites should be over. Firms should slash their customization costs by at least 50% for savings between $1 million to $5 million.

People editing content: Perhaps the most contentious and political category is the number of people producing official content and governing the intranet. Of course, most  Communications departments do far more than this. But a considerable subset of what they do is “focused on the announcement of management conclusions and the packaging of management thinking into messages for mass distribution to the 'troops'".

Adding up all of the work related to this subset could easily equate to 50 people across a large firm. And this should be reduced by at least 20%. Assuming a fully-loaded cost of $100,000 per person, that’s another $1 million in savings.

Why doesn’t everyone do it?

The biggest barriers seem to be control and fear. The people who own their particular tool or website cling to it as part of their value to the firm. And it’s the rare person who actively seeks to reinvent their job while trying to keep it.

But even communications professionals recognize the need for change, as described in this useful post entitled “The Internal Communications Department of the Future” by a former Communications head:

 “No longer can we afford to (only) cascade messages down from the top. Our organizations have become too complex and too slow to rely upon such an antiquated method. We need to be more nimble, transparent, and inclusive."

He then points out that the story can be about more than cutting communications costs. It can be about changing the very work of Communications to make it more useful and meaningful:

"...Even though I advocate a future where everyone is a communicator, communications professionals still have a pivotal role to play: helping others, throughout the organization, to become better communicators, and highlighting the best of employee contributions, while also reinforcing key messages around strategy and values. Such reinforcement aids in prioritization, so that scarce resources are more productive on the right things.”

In addition to saving millions, such a change would be good for the firm and all the people in it.

5 lessons for driving change from “The Blue Sweater”

The Blue SweaterEvery once in a while you read a book that changes you. That transcends the author and the original story and holds lessons that you can apply to your own work and life, well beyond the context of the book. “The Blue Sweater” by Jacqueline Novogratz is such a book.

It’s a memoir, recounting the experiences of someone who left international banking to found Acumen, a non-profit that’s “changing the way the world tackles poverty”. But whether you’re changing the world or changing your company, the lessons in the book can help you.

Work in the field

Though she was born and raised in the US, most of Jacqueline’s stories take place in deeply impoverished areas in Kenya, Rwanda, Pakistan, and India. There, she worked with local people to create small businesses. To teach people new skills but also to learn from them.

The way she embraced fieldwork reminded me of Dr. Paul Farmer’s approach in Haiti as described in “Mountains Beyond Mountains” when he said Every patient is a sign. Every patient is a test.”

Her stories are often frustrating, and the work is hard and humbling. She failed often. But Jacqueline’s work with individual women is what gave her a deeper understanding of what could work and what couldn’t. 

Embrace locally-driven change

Some of her early failures stemmed from trying to import ideas and practices that made perfect sense in New York but, in the field, proved to be impractical. It was only when she worked with local people to drive change locally that she had both the necessary knowledge and the social infrastructure to make a sustained difference.

Embracing locally-driven change also meant giving up control. It meant that her projects weren’t about her. She had a vision but learned that “no single source of leadership will make it happen”. So she committed to creating a system that would identify others who could lead and provide support for them.

Take a systems approach

Time and again she learned the solution wasn’t just about money. Or training. Or technology. Or some specific social change.

It was about all of those things. Fighting malaria, for example, wasn’t just about giving away mosquito nets. It was about supporting local manufacturing of nets at a price people could afford so there was a sustainable supply. Making sure the nets were easy to use. Coming up with creative new distribution methods. (I liked the image of Tupperware-style parties where local women talked of the nets as status symbols: “The color is beautiful, and you can hang the nets in your windows so the neighbors know how much you care about your family.” )

To drive change, she learned to tap into all six sources of influence. “It’s not ‘either-or’ but rather ‘both-and’.”

Learn from doing

When she was just beginning Acumen, she had enough funding but was so focused on planning and ensuring things succeeded that she didn’t have enough projects to invest in.

“...we were in a bit of a panic, and a wise CEO of a healthcare company gave me advice I will never forget. ‘Just start,’ he said. ‘Don’t wait for perfection. Just start and let the work teach you. No on expects you to get it right in the very beginning, and you’ll learn more from your mistakes than you will from your early successes anyway. So stop worrying so much and just look at your best bets and go.’”

That didn’t mean she was less careful or meticulous. Just that she learned the importance of  getting feedback from customers early and often while iterating and adapting. That was the best way to learning which solutions would actually be useful.

Leverage other people and networks

Despite her formidable energy, her ideas, her training, and her time in the field, she was still humble enough and wise enough to leverage other organizations. She got help from institutions as diverse as The Rockefeller Foundation and local microfinance organizations. She worked with a wide range of local entrepreneurs.

She didn’t feel the need to always create or control. Instead she searched for groups that were already doing good work. Then she looked for ways to invest in them and connect them so they could scale what they were doing and amplify the benefits.

The gift

When Jacqueline was a young girl, her uncle gave her a blue sweater that she cherished. She wore it all the time until, as a freshman in high school, someone poked fun at her. She insisted on giving it away and her mother and her ceremoniously disposed of it at their local thrift shop.

She didn't think about it again until, more than a decade later, in the streets of Kigali, Rwanda, she saw a skinny young boy wearing her sweater. Incredulous, she ran over to him. Unable to speak a language he understood, she simply grabbed him, turned over the collar, and saw her name on the tag. For Jacqueline, the blue sweater became a symbol of how we are all connected. And that changed the course of her life.

I gave a copy of “The Blue Sweater” to my daughter. I wanted to give her that message of connectedness and, even more so, provide her with Jacqueline’s example of how we can think differently - about change, our definition of success, and what a fulfilling life might look like.

7 questions you’ll face as you modernize your company

The 7 Questions

“Yes”, I was thinking to myself, “I’ve been there.”

I was talking with two more large firms this week about modernizing work and they were sharing the challenges they’re facing. One firm is considering buying a social business platform and the other wants to make even better use of the platform they already have. And for all of the many differences between the companies I see, it turns out we tend to face the same questions, in roughly the same sequence, time after time.

As a company evolves, the questions shift from fear of the unknown to a desire for utility to excitement about innovative possibilities. And the answers tend to be - or can be - the same across companies.

Knowing the questions and answers in advance might help you modernize your firm more quickly. Or at least provide some comfort that others are sharing in the same challenges and struggles.

“Can we do that?”

If you suggest using a social platform at work, you’ll quickly face a range of concerns from different departments - compliance, legal, HR, data privacy, data security, IT - and it can be overwhelming.

It’s work to sort through the rules. To do the research and benchmarking so you know what others have done. To meet with each department and have the same meeting multiple times until they’re comfortable. To write the policies and guidelines. But the short answer is “Yes, you can do that.” Hundreds of large firms have shown that, if you do the work, you will absolutely be able to get past this initial question.

“What if people say something they shouldn’t?”

People are messy. If there are enough people using your platform, someone somewhere will indeed post something that’s offensive, wrong, in violation of your terms & conditions, or just stupid.

The good news is that this rarely happens. By not allowing anonymous posts, you greatly limit the most egregious behavior. In addition, platforms support a “report abuse” feature which allows posts to be hidden (and subject to moderation) with a single click if you like. In addition, all posts can be retained and monitored.

After 16 months, we’ve had less than two dozen questionable posts and all were resolved without invoking the moderation process. Not all firms are so lucky, but none that I’ve met have found objectionable behavior to be a major problem.

“What’s it worth?”

You’ll face this question when you first consider using a platform and you’ll continue to face it for almost the entire life of your project. I avoided answering it at first - “It’s too hard to calculate the ROI!” - and that was a mistake.

It turns out there’s an entire class of collective efficiency ideas that will pay for your collaboration program many times over. Even before you work with businesses to generate more revenue, you can gain credibility and trust by using social tools and practices to identify and eliminate waste. (Some may even change your culture and save lives.)

“Will anyone use it?”

Before we started, we really didn’t know how many people would use our platform. Our own team’s estimates turned out to be woefully low compared to what actually happened.

But that’s not a guarantee. Too many firms treat collaboration as an IT project and wind up surprised when they hit a plateau, having exhausted the supply of eager early adopters.

Still, almost all firms wind up getting a critical mass using their platform within the first year or two. People seem to naturally like the ease of publishing and the interaction. But your firm will want more than that, and the questions get harder from here on.

“Is it official?”

You’ll face this question after you have significant activity on the platform but before the institution itself - namely Comms and senior managers - have embraced it.

For Comms, it’s often a question of control and of sunk costs. If a group has invested in a web site and is the only one who can publish on it, they're more likely to resist the tide of self-publishing that comes with modern platforms. For executives, they're simply waiting for Comms - or for other executives - to show them that it’s worth their time and that it's safe.

This is one of those questions that fades over time. More and more groups will opt for the ease, the interaction, and the social features of a modern platform. Those groups will influence other groups to do the same, and the old intranet controlled by Comms will, slowly, fade away.

For an increasing number of firms, their social platform is the intranet. What’s “official” will be more a question of who is doing the publishing than which content management system you use. And that’s how it should be.

“Will businesses use it?”

Some divisions will be more likely to make use of the social platform than others. IT, for example, is typically more comfortable with the tools and might place more value on social recognition than, say, salespeople.

The key to engaging people beyond the early adopters is to focus on specific use cases that help specific sets of people become more effective. Social isn’t the headline, value is.

For businesses, that typically means relying more heavily on curated content (e.g., information about clients) and on ready-made networks to provide support or answer questions (e.g., client teams and product teams). It also means a relentless drive for greater convenience, adapting your platform for a businessperson’s everyday workflow instead of trying to adapt businesspeople to your platform.

This is hard. And the only times I’ve seen firms come close to making progress is if they have a small center of excellence that can spend dedicated time in the field working on business-specific use cases and flows.

“What else can we do with it?”

If you get this question, take a moment and savor it. It means you’ve come a long way and put most of the other questions behind you. It means people in your company have moved beyond the basics and the barriers and are open to new possibilities.

Very few firms are at this stage. (We hear this question only occasionally.) But as you grow your portfolio of value stories, as more people use your platform for everyday work, as your culture shifts to one of greater openness and genuine collaboration, you’ll hear this question more and more. And you’ll be bounded only by your creativity and inspiration.

Getting to the 7th question

It seems more and more companies are tired of being 10-15 years behind what we see on the Internet. Frustrated with the overwhelming amount of email and meetings used to share information. And genuinely worried about the lack of engagement and the lack of appeal for younger generations.

But it took decades to create the deeply-rutted habits of how we work today.  And it will take a comprehensive strategy, a wide range of tactics, and dogged persistence to modernize how work gets done in big companies.

We’re only in the second year of that shift and it may take 3-4 more years, maybe longer. Meeting with other companies and writing this post reminds me of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go.

How about you? Are their other questions you face? Would you like to meet and compare progress and challenges? By sharing what works and what doesn’t, we can all make work more effective and more fulfilling, more quickly.