Call me crazy, but I’m going to attack another another social software orthodoxy: the Grassroots Myth.
The Grassroots Myth is my name for the notion that the most effective way to bring a new social software platform into an enterprise is through bottoms-up, viral introduction.
There’s something very right about the Grassroots myth, but also something very mistaken.
Like all good myths, this is based on a heroic legend. The details of the story vary from one company to the next, but the central elements are almost universal. It all begins with a single, junior-level employee. I’ll call him Joe, after Joe the Plumber, the “common man” immortalized by a
Joe the Plumber, Grassroots Myth Icon Extraordinaire (Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/38729188@N00/2987725752)
bizarre moment in John McCain’s presidential campaign. Joe is hard at work on a project or task that requires exchanging lots of ideas and content with colleagues across the organization. Joe sports an iPad and reads Tech Crunch daily. He’s tech-savvy, but doesn’t actually work in the IT department. Late one night it occurs to him that some sort of Facebook-, Wikipedia-, or Twitter-like collaboration tool could really help. So Joe does a little Internet research, finds a cheap or free hosted service, and –Voila!– that very night he is up and running. He posts some content and invites a few colleagues. Then, as the commercial goes, he tells two friends … and they tell two friends, and so on, and so on. Six months later, the whole company has adopted the tools and Joe is a hero.
It’s a wonderful story: the little guy who transforms his company through the power of a great idea.
It’s not quite that simple.
There are certainly Grassroots success stories out there, but they’re the exception not the rule. The more common experience is less rosy. Joe is working on his project, finds and sets up some collaboration software, and invites his colleagues on the project. His colleagues use the software to collaborate, and really like it. They tell a couple friends, but the friends are busy and not as tech-friendly as Joe. They like the concept, but can’t quite visualize it. They ask Joe to show them, but somehow the meeting keeps getting postponed. Joe launches the tool with another project he’s working on, and the same thing happens: the tool works great for the project, but goes no further. Joe demos the collaboration tool for his manager, Jane. Jane loves it and invites Joe to demo for the entire department. A few people ask Joe to set up accounts for them, but after a few days they misplace the login information and never go back. Joe continues to push the tool for his projects, and people continue to like it … as long as Joe is leading the charge. IT gets wind of the project and expresses concern that company data is being hosted externally by an unapproved vendor. Joe gets accepted to Harvard Business School (having impressed the Admissions Committee with his essay on collaboration). Joe leaves, and the company settles back into its (inefficient) email-based collaboration habits.
What happened to Joe, and why do so many social software innovators cling to his myth in the face of real-world experience?
I said before that there’s something very right about the Grassroots myth. That’s the content part. What you really want inside the enterprise is what I call “Content Grassroots.” This is distributed content creation from the ground up. This is the community that spontaneously forms around a shared interest in pediatric medicine, the engineering team that decides a wiki workspace is the best place to manage project deliverables, the sales manager who posts a photo in order to show a new demo booth to colleagues in other regions, the virtual conference that attracts hundreds of colleagues to a real-time brainstorming “tweet-up” on improving the customer experience. This is social software in action. This is where Joe really shines.
A lot of people confuse Content Grassroots with another type of Grassroots effort which is less benign: Technology Grassroots. Sourcing a new technology, platform, tool, or application via the Grassroots is an exercise in confusion and frustration. You end up with multiple solutions, all competing for attention. End users are sent to lots of different destinations, apparently for no good reason. There’s little or no integration with existing applications or data flows. Users don’t know which tools will survive and which will die. IT is concerned about security, performance, and stability. Organizational silos are reinforced, not diminished. Worst of all from a social networks standpoint, the company’s attention is fragmented across multiple tools, each of which struggles to achieve critical mass.
That’s where our mythical Joe usually fails in reality. When it comes to social software, your technology can’t be driven from the grassroots.
The most effective way to empower your Content Grassroots activity is to provide a single, unified, integrated technology. Invite everyone in. Integrate with company Directory and Single Sign-On. Integrate with other enterprise applications. Make sure everyone knows that it’s secure and it’s not going away.
Then let them blast away.
Here’s one way to put it: Content grassroots good, technology grassroots bad.
Here’s an even simpler way to say it: IT owns IT, and content owners own content.
Crazy? Obvious? Accurate? Stupid? Tell me what you think…