Enterprise 2.0 Failure: My Story

Ethan Yarbrough
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The consulting firm Booz | Allen | Hamilton gets a lot of well deserved attention for their use of Enterprise 2.0 to extend the usefulness of their intranet, Hello.bah. They're mainstays at the Enterprise 2.0 conferences and one of the great success stories.

Among the many things I've heard them say to explain why they've been so successful is that they built their solutions around people.

That sounds right, but what exactly does it mean? I think it means don't do what I did.

When I first heard about Enterprise 2.0 and the social computing aspects of it in particular I got very excited about the information sharing possibilities it presented for my company. We have a distributed workforce and anything that can help shed light for our employees on what work is happening in other parts of the company immediately gets my attention.

This was in 2007. We had a new SharePoint intranet in place and I decided I wanted to add social communities for employees to connect with each other and share information. I called them the Competency Communities.

I called them that because within our employee population we had, at the time, 6 main professional competencies: Project Management, Business Intelligence, Content Management, Web Development, Marketing Management and Operations Support. It was my idea that by giving these distinct groups of employees a collaborative space in which they could interact with others of their kind through discussion boards, document sharing and link sharing the company could benefit. Expertise would be shared. Questions would be answered. Tacit knowledge would become explicit knowledge and would become a durable resource for everyone.

We built the Competency Community team sites on the intranet and then, using employees’ professional categorizations in Active Directory as a guide, assigned every employee in the company to the community we felt was appropriate for them.

Dramatic pause here while I let you wonder what happened next…

It failed.


We sent out announcements to our employees explaining what the Competency Communities were and which of the communities the recipient had been assigned to. “Congratulations,” we’d say. “You’re now part of the Content Management community.” Or “Welcome to the Project Management community.” And right away, we got push back: “I’m not a project manager, I’m a marketing manager.” Or“Yeah, I know my job title is business analyst, but I’m more of a data manager in practice.”

Here’s the mistake I made: I didn’t design the communities around people. I didn’t design it so that employees could self-select into the groups they thought matched who they were. The designations I used were the ones management used to determine pay rates, career paths, etc. They were not the designations the employees used to describe themselves. I did not respect the employees’ desire for self-determination.

And as a result they didn't see themselves in the communities I had put them into. They felt no connection to the communities and so they resisted them.

There were certainly other reasons for the failure of my first Enterprise 2.0 effort: I didn’t ask people if they wanted the communities; I didn’t involve them in the design of the communities, and I built the communities outside of the flow of their daily work. For sure, none of that helped.

But the communities really were doomed from the outset. Because I designed them around labels, not around people. I designed them around payroll categories, not around people. I designed them around my top-down view of the world and then asked employees to change to match me instead of asking the employees what they were trying to achieve and what I could build to make them more successful at doing that.

I think I’m smarter now. But if I turn out not to be, I’ll tell you all about it here.


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Steve Radick

Thanks for the shout-out Ethan - I appreciate hearing that our approach has inspired others to work on similar strategies. I can say, however, that while I firmly believe we're taking the right approach, we've had our own struggles that I'd like to discuss too. At times, we've over-corrected and focused too much on the change management/communications side of things, resulting in technical glitches that actually drove participation down. There were times where we tried to do too much and overwhelmed our community. There have been internal struggles over who controls what and who has the final say.

While we get a lot of credit for the work that we've done with hello.bah.com, it's not like we've cracked the code and did everything perfectly. The most important thing we have done though is to create an atmosphere of flexibility and agile development, and the only reason we were able to do that is because we secured our funding model for the long-term. We no longer have to reach X number of users to justify the resources we're spending - it's become something that our leadership have committed to over the long-term.

Let me know if you ever want to talk more about what we've done!
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Pankaj Taneja

That doesn't sound like an outright failure. More some starting hiccups. Knowing that enterprise 2.0 is an emerging discipline, we learn by doing. I am sure you wont give up on your enterprise 2.0 efforts just yet :)

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Lindsey Niedzielski

Great post, Ethan. Thank you for pointing out how important it is to design communities around people and even more importantly to involve them from the outset. We have a community for IM professionals (www.openmethodology.org) that discusses related topics and we have bookmarked this post for our users. Looking forward to reading more of your work and sharing with our community.
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This post and comment(s) reflect the personal perspectives of community members, and not necessarily those of their employers or of AIIM International