Social business design

Larry Irons · July 8, 2009 · Short URL:

The importance of multichannel team collaboration

David Armano recently asked the question, Is the Hub and Spoke Model Adaptable? Anyone who ever worked on a project team in a large organization, especially corporate enterprises, probably recognizes the hub and spoke team design depicted in the graphic above. In this post I take a closer look at the hub and spoke design's purpose in hierarchical, bureaucratic, organizations--the kind associated with industrial society. Our next post discusses how David answered his question and what an adaptable hub and spoke model implies for social business design.

Project management, typically consisting of one or more team leads clustered in the hub, considers the failure of any spoke's functional work practices to align with approved best practices as evidence of process ignorance, a failure of competence in following the detailed process requirements in the team's project plan, not a failure of the organization's adaptive capability. The hub and spoke model's basic idea is that a matrix-organization, consisting of cross-functional project teams, optimizes the traditional hierarchical organization by adding increased flexibility in responding to market demands for innovation in products and services, and maintaining adherence to a standard management process. However, as Rob Cross and Robert Thomas observe in their recent book, Driving Results Through Social Networks,

...most projects and processes are enabled by productive networks that form among some (but not all) team members in combination with relationships that bridge to key resources and expertise outside of the team.

In other words, much of the collaborative effort going into innovation projects also involves social networks that aren't part of project teams. Instead, these networks emerge from relationships with others in the enterprise, or from outside friends and associates. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that some research into geographically distributed teams shows that on average, only 75% of the employees on any given distributed team agree about who is, and who is not, on their team. The challenge increases in importance as project teams form and disband more rapidly to manage risk and opportunity, thereby increasing the already fuzzy distinctions of formal organization, i.e. official teams, and informal organization, i.e. social teams.

Ross Mayfield summarized the point well in the following observation:

Process is "how work should be done." And Practice is "how work is actually done." When process fails (exceptions), people use practice to fix things. When process doesn't exist, practice fills the void. While people don't realize it when they engage in practice, they actually are tapping into community -- an informal social network within or beyond the enterprise to discover expertise and get things done. The problem is that we haven't had the tools to support good practice. The problem is that we haven't developed the group memory around practice that creates institutional leverage. In fact, we still design organizations to prevent practice and cultures that hoard knowledge and communities. 

I suggest that the real value of social business design comes from the promise it holds for enabling management practices to develop to deal with the following fact:  Social networks do not respect organizational walls, they never did.

Shared experience, not just shared information, is fundamental to the social networks underlying collaboration and innovation. Many, if not most, employees don't only need to get to know one another through reputation systems, like who people tag as possessing expertise. As Thomas Vander Wal continues to point out, comfort with one another is needed to develop a shared experience that encourages the open sharing of information.  

Collaboration means getting to know that other employees possess expertise on this or that topic, but also developing comfort with one another by sharing significant symbols relating to self, family, friends, and social activities, thereby understanding one another as people. Shared experience with co-workers and customers is a key factor in innovative business practices. It is especially important to multichannel collaboration.

Distinguishing Multichannel Teams

Peter Merholtz of Adaptive Path recently added to the discussion of what many refer to as social business by noting that, from the design side, all design teams need a multichannel employee composition. Indeed, the multichannel composition of teams is widely considered a baseline change required for innovation across enterprises. Many people might think enterprises already have multichannel teams, since project teams typically include members representing a range of functional areas, from strategic partners to operating companies, to divisions, or departments. However, the conventional way of thinking about the organization of cross-functional teams fails miserably in conveying the dynamic nature of collaboration as customers and employees increase their use of social media.

More than anything else, the emergence of social media in the enterprise, and in its ecosystem, makes the shortcomings of the dominant thinking about how to organize for innovation obvious. Developing a mutual understanding of the value that social relationships bring to organizational networks is increasingly important for collaboration among employees, as well as between customers and the experience those same enterprises provide them.

Much of the point about social media for social business design involves the insight that the brands offered to consumers are increasingly defined by the experience of customers using the product/service provided. As a result, the traditional patterns of communication between public relations, marketing, customer service, operations, product design, and other functional areas are increasingly challenged as they listen to, and engage, customers to provide a good experience and meet their needs through designing and delivering innovative products/services.

In other words, the emergence of social media, as it is used by consumers, customers, and strategic partners, makes it clear that overcoming much of the failure rate in innovation programs requires a transformation in practices of collaboration within enterprises. As I previously noted in Social Software, Community and Organization,

Social software offers the prospect of diminishing, though by no means eliminating, the gulf between formal organizational processes and informal employee practices [so-called process ignorance]. The key fact is that social software is a way of cultivating shared experience rather than a mere means to an end, or goal, alone.

Proponents of social business design offer a promising direction for executing on the collaborative potential of social software. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that the term multichannel design is not ensured just because your enterprise organizes its social media program using cross-functional teams. In other words, not just because the public relations, eCommerce, marketing, customer support, operations, and sales teams represent their areas in your social media program. 

The term multichannel design in social business refers to affording a culture that encourages the emergence of communication patterns between, and among, customers as well as employees, online and off line. Informal work practices will prove key to the competencies required in maintaining adaptive relationships among employees, customers, and strategic partners as social media usage increases in the enterprise.


Larry writes the blog Skilful Minds.

Support VatorNews by Donating

Read more from our "Trends and news" series

More episodes