Don’t retweet the revolution

I used to be a cheerleader for social business.

I was inspired by all the stories of people coming together to make a difference. It felt like a movement, and I wanted to be part of it. So I tried to become the “social media and collaboration guy” at my firm.

After more than a year, though, I failed to make the kind of difference I was rooting for.

Until something happened that got me off the sidelines.

Cheer school

At my firm, I wrote a blog post every week (for 80 weeks) about collaboration and social media topics. I gave presentations to grads and anyone else who'd listen. I championed new tools, trying to demonstrate how powerful they were.

The tools and I gained a following of a few thousand people. And the attention felt good.

But my audience was a small fraction of the 80,000+ employees at my firm. I was simply rallying people who already believed what I believed.

And I wasn’t changing much of anything.

The pitch and the epiphany

So I tried to expand our efforts so I could make a bigger impact. I prepared a pitch for senior executives in London, asking for money for an enterprise platform and a small team.

At the end of my presentation, there was an awkward silence. And only one question.

“What problem are you trying to solve?”

I went home dejected. It was clear now that I had to change my approach. No more stories about building wells in Africa or changing governments in Tunisia. Instead, I had to relate the new tools and practices to specific problems and ROI those executives could recognize.

I had to focus on real inefficiencies, real opportunities, and real commercial benefits at my own firm.

The power of solving real problems

So I stopped running from the ROI question. And I looked for hard dollar savings to more than justify my pitch.

Instead of talking about blogging and tweeting, I provided analysis on:

  • reducing portal customization costs by providing self-service team sites
  • reducing service calls by enabling crowd-sourced online forums
  • reducing time to resolution of technical problems by creating communities of experts

Not exactly revolutionary. But my conservative savings estimates far outweighed the costs in my failed pitch.

Then I kept going. I’d relate example after example of softer - but potentially much greater - benefits:

  • reducing time to locate experts by offering rich, searchable profiles
  • increasing availability of knowledge enabled by improving multi-authoring tools and new, formal curator roles
  • increasing role proficiency by introducing certifications and training curricula for each expert community
  • increasing feedback and employee engagement by implementing social upgrades to institutional communications practices

These are all basic enterprise improvements that will add up to a lot of money - even before we tackle the more advanced cases in sales, trading, and other business areas.

And while we scoured the firm for benefits, we took practical steps that didn’t require much investment. We formed communities of practice - replete with formal roles and measurable benefits - to demonstrate the value of a new way of working. We formed a social media council to connect internal practitioners and better understand the problems our businesses wanted to solve.

Now, armed with a real business case, dozens of real examples in our own firm, and compelling evidence from our first 10 communities, I pitched again to those same executives.

And it worked like a charm.

Learning by listening. And doing.

After my epiphany, I’ve stopped promoting capabilities and hoping others would figure out how to use them. I’ve stop talking about the social business revolution.

Instead, I’m listening more to the individuals, teams, and divisions at my own firm. To see how social tools and practices - along with the full spectrum of other work innovations - can help improve the basics of what people do every day.

And I’m listening more to practical social business practitioners like Claire Flanagan, who’s been changing her firm (CSC) in ways big and small for years. (You can listen to her too at AIIM’s upcoming social business conference.) I'm listening to Sameer Patel, Laurie Buczek and others who write about separating “the activism vs pragmatic thinking on the topic of embracing social and collaborative ways of work.”

I’ll continue to be inspired by the big ideas and stories of social change. But, this time, I’ll roll up my sleeves and look and listen for real problems in my firm.

And I’ll change the work.