Solving the inception paradox

Organizations are not used to deal with communities. 

Communities are made of passion, energy, relationships and knowledge. Human beings are the main ingredient. Their inner dynamics are not deterministic, nonlinear and very hard to predict. They are often invisible to organizations as they don’t fit into the neat, hierarchical and transactional mechanisms that have been designed to get work done.

Even worse, crucial cultivation, engagement, measurement and change management skills are clearly missing in most large corporations today on the market. Without such competencies and sensitivity, organizations are simply not equipped to recognize communities, to understand them or to see their amazing role in business outcomes.

Such discomfort is evident in the unrealistic expectations expressed by companies that decide to launch employee communities. You may find some of the following questions familiar:

  • How long will it take for the community to deliver its results?
  • What’s the top usage scenario we should bet on?
  • Which are the key content and services we should provide?
  • Is the enterprise social software platform we already have the right one for our community?
  • How much savings / revenues will we get thanks to the community?

Can you see the issue with them?

At first sight, asking to predict returns, exact planning, focus, technology is exactly what you would expect before getting any major transformation program started. Why spending money if you are not getting more of it back? How to manage risk (both of failure and uncontrolled growth) if you don’t really know what they community will look like?

And yet, as unpleasant as it may sound, I’m convinced the only serious way to address similar questions is to admit that “there is no exact answer “. The answer won’t be precise as:

  • Communities (meant first of all as networks of relationships) evolve in a chaotic way. Their outcomes build on each other with accelerations and slow downs. Results and behaviors can be influenced but not precisely designed ahead.
  • In order to reach a critical mass of participation (the main failure point still today), control, content and services must be assigned to the very users of the community. The members are the owners. The organization is a facilitator. Groups of individuals are inherently hard to predict.
  • Even spotting crucial usage scenarios require a complex translation process between what social collaboration can do and the day-to-day flows, bottlenecks and business opportunities specific for each team, departments and units. That’s not something you can dictate from the top. Building such a bridge involves time, trust, change, patience and contamination.
  • Technology acts as a successful enabler only when addressing some real needs of its users. Unfortunately you cannot list those needs before reaching out to the members and they are anyway destined to change over time.
  • Inertia is another major source of complexity. More than yet another technology, a social enterprise promotes a new paradigm for how the organization and its people should create value. It’s about upending long standing habits, behaviors and barriers more than incrementally going around them. How much time will it take? You can often count the time needed in decades.

For most managers such perspective is simply impossible to understand. It looks like a leap of faith more than a sound strategy. For others, it is too scary and hard to accept.

The usual reaction to keep fear under control is asking for a predictable, top-down, big design upfront launch process in the hope such approach may exist and be effective. Unfortunately community success doesn’t demand more control. It demands releasing control.

That means giving entirely up the idea of an exact solution and embracing a new empowerment role that enables different parts of the organization to come up with their own answer. Facilitation as opposed to control is so important with communities because it transfers ownership and accountability. It gives members a sense of identity. It pushes them to become the relational leaders of their circle. It provides a way to translate digital technologies to vertical business needs and contexts.

For managers to navigate this huge paradigm shift and manage their expectations, my recipe is fully recognizing the intertangled web of actions and counteractions the organization already has and investigating its net effect on community development through the diagram below:

This diagram connects user demand, investment and generated value in employee communities to show an effect that is often ignored by organizations: the inception paradox.

In a deterministic world, the more resources you put into an organizational initiative, the more attention and value you immediately extract from its potential recipients. In a complex world made of hundreds or thousands of independent actors connected to each other, this is simply false as interest, investment and results move along three different curves:

  • Interest is the amount of motivation, attention, energy a community launch is able to attract. New shiny things may temporary win users that are naturally open to experiment with them or that were obliged to do that due to a top-down communication push. Under the load of a constant stream of news and organizational resistance, interest is also quick to vanish. As with the diffusion of any innovation, only when value is finally understood by end users, adoption starts to grow again and reaches critical mass
  • Value is the level of tangible and intangible returns both the organization and its members are able to derive from the community. It grows much slower and it is much less volatile than interest. In order to see results materialize, most organizations have to defeat cultural barriers, departmental silos, inertia to change and the fears / lack of awareness of the management. Social collaboration value is quite limited within small groups or when teams are already working together in the same location. At the other extreme, the number of connections, exchanges, solutions  increases exponentially when critical mass has been reached. Success stories also help attracting additional interest that in turns reinforces value.
  • Investment is the amount of time, skills, training, change management, technology, communication, cultivation required for a community to reach its maturity. The overall lack of awareness about the potential business value of communities in the board is often connected to limited investments. Available resources are split, at best, between technology, strategy and people cultivation. Investment intensity is much higher at the beginning while it tends to reach a plateau towards maturity.

What the inception paradox tells us is that:

  • Expectations are balanced in the inception phase as both investment and interest are usually high while there is not yet a visible pressure on generating value at this point.
  • A paradox emerges in the resistance phase as the interest quickly fades away while investment is disproportionately high in respect to the value achieved. It seems the initiative is not delivering on its promises. Things are going too slow or not in the right direction. This is where the management often gives up and the patient is declared dead while it is still alive because the organization is not able to appreciate the natural dynamics of group behavior. It’s only faith and awareness from the top that makes it possible to overcome such a crucial juncture by protecting resource availability before seeing the results.
  • Success with communities is about winning hearts and souls. Adolescence happens when the organization accepts adoption fatigue and the need to win group after group, use case after use case in order to reinvigorate both the level of interest among users and the value perceived from the top. This may be a long (months for sure, sometimes years) and delicate phase as the initial attention is definitely gone while investment is still higher than returns. At the beginning such results are too soft to be considered strategic by the top management. For this reason, already engaged groups have to be used to spread the word, contaminate others and expand the program on the rest of the organization.
  • Maturity is where critical mass is finally reached. Interest is up again. With interest comes adoption. Massive adoption brings exponential value. Value is now sustainable, measurable and higher than the amount of resources dedicated to the initiative. The community starts to show its own dynamics and the effort to keep it alive reaches a plateaux.

Conclusions

Inception, resistance, adolescence and maturity all need a different set of actions and we may come back to them in the near future.

What managers must accept regarding less of the phase, is that cultivating a successful community is both about envisioning a future organization and leading from the back. It takes courage, new skills, a new leadership style but even more lots of patience and the right to try, fail and learn.

Reverting back to a top-down roll-out strategy can give a false sense of control but won’t ever be effective in generating passion, interest, scale or value. It would only guarantee an inefficient allocation of limited resources and probably waste a good opportunity for making your company a better place for work.

The inception paradox can help to set reasonable expectations, focalize energies in the right direction and reassure management about the expected outcomes at each phase.

Emanuele Quintarelli

Social media enthusiast and Social Business Leader in EY. Research, reports and reflections about the introduction of web 2.0 inside the enterprise.

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  • Chip Rodgers

    Excellent blog Emanuele. The chart reminds me of the classic Gartner hype-cycle charts where new technology hits the “trough of disillusionment” but finally becomes valuable after real business value use cases become more plentiful and apparent. I ran the SAP Community Network and we likewise had a long ramp-up time and were fortunate to have had a senior executive / board member who was a believer and kept the corporate anti-bodies from shutting down the fledgling operation until it had time to grow. Today SCN has taken on a life of its own and regularly attracts over 2.5 million unique visitors a month based on a vibrant, engaged, passionate community creating amazing user-generated content every day.

  • Hi Chip,
    thanks for your kind comment and very nice to meet you!

    You are right, as part of the idea came from the hype cycle but each of the curves below are quite different even the interest one that instead of reaching plateau keeps growing exponentially until the community adds more members and more information. In a sense, I did my best to decouple the different dynamics reinforcing how the hype cycle doesn’t fully apply here.

    Nonetheless, I agree that in that though of disillusionment the role of senior executives is at least as important as the one from end users, champions and the project team.

    The goal is exactly that amazingly autonomous organism each vibrant community looks to be.