Social Operations – yes, you can!

20130701-204206.jpgIn a space with so many terms already I am going to dare to introduce a new one: Social Operations – at least for the duration of this post. It’s a term I am going to use simply to anchor an important point upon.


The current state of things

If you go to Google right now and scoop a significant sample of references documenting, researching or simply narrating experiences with social media in business and if you scan them quickly, you will notice a few interesting trends:


In other words, everybody understands e-commerce but everybody is confused on what to do with this thing called social media within the enterprise.

For those of you who feel part of this majoriy, this article is aimed at providing you some help. I will refer to Social Operations as activities at the productive core of an Enterprise – industry or service sector – that are carried out but using social media as a the communication medium. Social Operations – when companies are able to figure them out – have very different characteristics than most traditional work places:

  • There are few meetings
  • People don’t work in silos
  • Instead of being very aware of their “departments”, employees are very aware of their “communities”
  • Problems, issues, snags in the operation get resolved faster than in traditional environments, by an order of magnitude!


Why would you get into this? Why would you want to move from a ‘traditional’, well established way of operating into a new, not very well known, approach to organizing work? It’s a big change and if you’re a large operation, a change that can be daunting. Thus, the reasons have to be substantial. Let me try to address this big “why?” question.

The #1 reason to migrate to a Social model of Operations is speed. The #2 reason is flexibility. These aren’t just motherhood statements. They are fundamental strategic imperatives in a world that changes so fast and frequently and where organizations consolidate and globalize on an ongoing basis.

You need speed to react to unexpected events, to respond to sudden changes in the environment without disrupting the service you provide your customers. You need flexibility to adapt to new challenges in the marketplace – new competitors, new products, even new paradigms. These are things you can’t accomplish if you rely on the traditional constructs of the vertically integrated corporation of the 20th century – org chars, job descriptions, silos, management meetings, etc.

In that traditional model, change is just too slow!!

The ideal work environment to deal with volatile business conditions is a self-adjusting model, a collective of people of multiple skills who dynamically reshape their actions and ways of working as the environment changes. That’s what Social Operations are all about – collective shape-shifters!

The HIVE playbook

But how do you do it? These are all nice ideas, maybe even seductive, but what does it mean, what does it look like and how do you go from here to there?

A few months ago, I published the HIVE model, a structured approach to bring together multi-skilled individuals and help them develop collective awareness and collective intelligence, to the point where they behave as a cohesive entity when dealing with business events. Since then, I’ve had a chance to implement this model in a few organizations, in a fairly structured way. In the rest of this article, I will describe to you how I went about rolling out HIVE’s in organizations. In fact, I will attempt to give you a simple “playbook” that you can follow, if you want to experiment with this model. It is a fairly inoffensive undertaking, inexpensive and not particularly obtrusive, but which provides tremendous gains almost from the onset.

1 Focus

You can pick many aspects of operations as a basis to introduce virtual collaboration into the workplace. In my experience, the best ‘space’ in which to leverage the power of this form of communication is in handling surprises. The world of operations can almost be split in two hemispheres: one where everything happens as it should; the other where things go wrong and what shouldn’t happen, happens (supplier is late, quality problems, regulatory change, competitors out of stock, sudden surge in demand, supplier goes bankrupt, shortage of source materials worldwide, hike in the cost of oil, change in currency value, a natural disaster, etc.). It is in this latter ‘hemisphere’ that the model works best and provides the greatest benefits.

2 Community with a Mission

In the HIVE Model we recommend that one defines HIVE units with a specific responsibility or mission that is directly linked to the promise of the Enterprise to its customers. Start by establishing what is this goal. It could be something like:

  • Respond to unexpected events in such a way as to maintain high service levels to customers
  • React quickly to competitor stock outs and capture market opportunities
  • Respond to complex customer inquiries within a single interaction with the customer (e.g., single phone call, single chat session…)

What’s important is that these goals have to be tangible to a customer, they have to be something a customer would relate to and assign value to.

3 Allocate staff to the HIVE

You can start this journey with just one HIVE unit and that usually works best. Pick a Pilot theme, something significant that will demonstrate the benefits of the approach but not too large for a first experiment.

Let’s assume, then, that you start with a HIVE pilot. You then have to select all the roles that are needed in the HIVE so that the unit is self-sufficient in handling its mission (defined in 2 above). You may omit peripheral, support roles that are not core to the mission and whose services are required only occasionally – e.g., HR, IT, Finance, Legal, Regulatory, etc.

4 Social Business Awareness

Most people in the workplace today still don’t know what is social media and what it can do in business. Those who are familiar with this form of communication, mostly understand it in the context of their personal lives and can’t really imagine how it can play a role in the work place. It’s important to help individuals get a grasp of how the world has changed and of the immense potential of collaboration. You can do a few things to change the situation:

  • Invite a guru of social enterprise or social business to give a talk to the people from the HIVE pilot, to open their minds to a different way of seeing the world
  • You can curate TED videos and YouTube videos with talks from gurus (e.g., Don Tapscott) or with statistics from the world of virtual communications (e.g., “did you know?“, “social media revolution“, “statistics from social media revolution“) and have a workshop where these videos are shared and then discussed. Ask the following open question: “what would change in the company if it implemented a social model in there workplace?

5 Train Managers

Managers in a HIVE environment can’t behave the same way as when functioning in a traditional silo hierarchy. A HIVE, being a Social Operations model, is based on 4 key principles: collaboration, transparency, sharing and empowerment. Hence, employees in the HIVE, collectively, are empowered to make decisions and solve problems. Managers involved in a HIVE are expected to provide direction, not to assign tasks. Managers must be trained to be coaches, to show employees that they can make decisions and that there is no consequence from the fact that they do make decisions; reassure them that they are supported and that “Management” trusts them and their skills.

Thus, before calling employees ‘to serve in HIVE duty’, it is important to carry out a workshop with Senior Managers (usually Directors and Executives) to train the latter in a new role for managers, in this new, collaborative world.

6 HIVE community workshop

Once you’ve selected the mission, allocated roles and individuals to the HIVE and once you’ve trained Senior Managers, you’re ready for the big day – when you actually launch the HIVE. I use a workshop setting whose objective is to get individuals of multiple skills to start working as a community, rather than working in separate silos. I.e., to create HIVE awareness.

The most important ingredient in an HIVE is that people know each other’s roles and that there is no confusion or ambiguity on what those roles entail. HIVE awareness exists when each individual relates intuitively to the roles of the other individuals in the HIVE.

The HIVE workshop that I run evolves as follows:

  • Social Business awareness – if HIVE members haven’t yet been exposed to this theme, start the HIVE workshop with what was described above in section 4.
  • Examples of HIVE interactions – try to curate a set of examples of conversation threads that illustrate well the dynamics of a multi-skilled HIVE.
  • Role clarification – spend some time getting the individuals in the HIVE to clarify the scope of every Role in the room. This is an essential step to create HIVE awareness
  • Training on Social Tools – bring in whichever social tool you’ve selected – Yammer, JIVE, Moxiesoft, Sharepoint – and perform basic training
  • Practice session – if this is an Operations HIVE, you have people form operations in the room. Surely, they bring with them in their minds the ever present list of problems happening at the office. Well, let them start posting them and you will be amazed at how they spontaneously start reacting to each other, right then and in the virtual environment of the social tool. They will post comments to each other’s postings in text, even though they are all in the same room. It is a truly fascinating phenomenon to observe.
  • Describe and kick-off a monitoring process that will help people migrate from their physical world of meetings and phone conferences to the collaborative world of social media. That process is described in the next section.

7 Process to migrate from meetings to social media

In traditional work places, the only form of multi-skill ‘congregation’ is the meeting – in a physical room or through telephone conferences. People are familiar with these settings, contrary to the setting of a virtual collaboration space. In a Social Operation such as what the HIVE model recommends, there are very few meetings but to get there, you need to help people along. I usually recommend a structured process as illustrated next, as a way to help people migrate from one set of habits to the other.

imageOn an ongoing basis, members of the HIVE unit post issues, the things that go wrong, the things that weren’t supposed to happen.

It is not uncommon initially that few people post, some people comment and most people just observe. To ‘break the ice’ we supplement this activity with two tiers of meetings.

  • In Tier 1, all the members of the HIVE meet daily, open up the social tool and then go through every conversation in the News Feed that reflects a problem that hasn’t been resolved. You can facilitate this easily through a telephone conference with a screen sharing tool like MS Lync, WebEx, GoToMeeting or JoinMe.
  • In Tier 2, Senior Managers get together with the HIVE twice a week to go over any conversations that the HIVE was not able to resolve at Tier 1. In this meeting, Senior Managers are expected to help HIVE members make decisions rather than making decisions themselves. It is here that Senior Managers can play that role of coaches and mentors who empower people who are accustomed to function within Silos and who are afraid of making decisions that affect other areas.

In time, the first meeting to go is Tier 1, as HIVE members learn how to function as a cohesive unit and resolve problems live, through the day, without needing to meet. Then, Tier 2 becomes gradually obsolete as there are fewer and fewer issues left to be resolved at those meetings.

8- Follow Ups

Once a month, you should bring the HIVE together as well as Senior Managers to review progress, discuss the experience, draw lessons and improve things. You will probably need to do this for about 6 months.

9- Who runs the Playbook?

Finally, in the above text I have often spoken to “you” but never specified whom I am assuming that “you” to be, i.e., who should be running with the HIVE Playbook. Fair enough but there isn’t one answer to this question. Like most strategic initiatives, this one needs a Champion Sponsor. This is often someone at the core of the Enterprise – Supply Chain, Customer Service, Account Administration, Software Development, etc. But there needs to be, indeed, a Champion and it is that person that would go through the steps I recommend above.

It is common for the Champion to be the person who introduces the idea to the Enterprise. Or, maybe an external consultant introduced the idea and the Champion is nominated thereafter. Either way, there needs to be one and he or she has to be supported high in the hierarchy in order for this model to overcome the natural obstacles of a traditional organization. Remember – functional structures are anti-collaboration. That is why it is being so hard for social media to penetrate the traditional corporation. Thus the importance of having a Champion that is supported by Senior Management at the very top.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s