It seems to me that SAP's 75 mentors are the fire starters for much of what happens in SAP's two-million member community network and I told you a little about why in my previous post. And further, they have influence on programs, policies, product and ideas that often spread throughout SAP global infrastructure
For that reason, I'm giving a good deal of attention to the mentors while researching The Living Enterprise. My previous post told you a bit about the organization and today's post looks at the program's founder and leader.
Mark Finnern, is SAP's chief community evangelist. He created, named and orchestrates the SAP Mentor group. It would not be accurate to say he runs the mentors, because they in fact, run themselves. He is more like a spiritual vortex for them. His role is not part of any company devised grand strategy. Rather, his job has sort of evolved as so many social media positions have done in the past few years. In some ways, social media professionals in established businesses are still making it up as they go along.
It started in 2003, when Mark became part of a small handful of SAP professionals assigned to develop a developer outreach program for NetWeaver, then a new software platform that needed to open the company up to a larger number of software developers that had been previously necessary.
This became the Software Developers Network [SDN] SAP's first online social network. Sinc then there have been several new social networks created, all under the SAP Communities Network [SCN] umbrella. Like other enterprises, these communities are public in that anyone can visit them, but they are private in that only community members with a designated userID and password can post content. Free thought and speech is encouraged, but inappropriate content is promptly taken down and repeat offenders can be banned.
Mark was the non-technical member of the technical team that started SDN. "I brought the passion," he told me. He also brought a series of new ideas and played a key role in stitching together a series of communities that meander seemlessly from online to off and from company representative to partner or customer and back again.
SDN's first module was an old-fashioned forum, which pretty much looks and feels like any forum that you may have seen in the last 20 years or so. Mark's first significant improvement was to add blogs to the forums. Blogs were still relatively new, outside of the development community. There were less than 50 of them among Fortune 100 companies in 2004, when these started.
Tim O'Reilly, CEO of O'Reilly Media, an open source champion,publisher and event producer consulted SAP on how to get started and social media and provided the company with it's first online community platform. [As the communities and users grew, with thousands of posts per day, the company would eventually migrate to Jive Software.]
Blogs move faster than forums and the comment structure is more conversational. After Mark and others injected them into SDN, the conversations became a lot more interesting.
But they also raised issues that have been a pain points for most businesses related to social media. SDN, is an official SAP site. Companies are accustomed to being in command and control of what is said on their own turf. And when you think about it, why shouldn't the company, have the power to review, revision, polishing and filtering.
Blogs just don't work well that way. And on SDN customers were encouraged to post blogs side-by-side with those from SAP employees. This changed the perspective from company to community.
Company concerns probably reached a crescendo when an outside developer posted a blog calling a particular SAP product a failure. Mark's phone started ringing a few minutes later, a higher up ordered Mark to take the post down.
Mark resisted. Deleting it would cost the company credibility. While the internal offline debate continued, something started happening at SDN itself. Other community members began chiming, posting defenses for the product and pointing to several mistruths in the original post.
The result strengthened the product's position as well as SAP's credibility in the developer community. When customers defend a company, it has greater influence than anything a company spokesperson could hope to accomplish.
But it was a two-way street. The community had revealed itself to be credible to the company. If some officials had feared that blogging would allow an unruly mob to light torches, it turned out that those torches would illuminate the truth about a company and its products. It meant that praise could protect SAP and the criticism that did come in would be mostly constructive, helping the company to adjust course when it was wise to do so.
The incident helped SAP to gain credibility with some of the hardest-to-impress people inside SAP. Senior technologists generally speaking tend to be viewed as hard nosed and cynical to any form of hype and SAP's are no different. SAP's Horst Keller, an internationally known German physicist and author was one such senior technologist. After the incident, he posted a blog describing what had happened as very cool. Mark encouraged him to post more content and Horst complied, opening the door for some of SAP's most respected technology voices to join the conversation.
Mark kept helping to evolve functionality. he encouraged the team to add wikis, which seem to keep better focus than others I've seen. he adapted a system from Reilly media that allowed the company to reward contributions with points based on frequency and quality of contribution.
Perhaps most significantly, was that Mark realized that while online communities may reduce barriers of time and geography, it misses one of the magic points of human interaction: the face-to-face meeting.
He started developing events in cooperation with the mentors. It began with "unconferences," where attendees set the agenda and schedule. These have evolved into what is now called SDN Meets Labs, day-long sessions, usually produced by SAP mentors held all over the world. He added Tee-shirts that often touted community boosting slogans.
When O'Reilly keynoted to 5000 SAP customers at Tech Ed 2007, he walked onto the dais wearing a tee shirt he had received at a smaller, more intimate Community Day for 350 the day before. Paraphrasing a famous Clint Eastwood line, it declared, "Go ahead. Make my community day. "O'Reilly looked down at his shirt and commented, Any company that puts this on their tee-shirts, gets it."
Another face-to-face event produced by Mark and the mentors is the SDN Clubhouse. When attendees of Tech Ed or SAPphire, the huge annual conferences conference sessions get bored they can wander into the clubhouse for coffee and conversation. Mark makes having the best coffee at each event a major priority.
Mark told me he doubts the mentors would not have emerged into either so tight-knit or as influential of a community without the face-to-face get togethers.
"The experience of being in a room with people who share the passion, to work together and to solve problems is what gives the mentors their magic," he told me.
It seems to me that Mark's personality, a mixture of passion, intensity and dry humor has much to do with the personality adopted by the mentor organization of 75 people and because of their collective position of influence over both SAP and its community this small group is contributing to the texture, personality, products and policies of a global community of millions of millions of people.
One aspect of the mentors is a common thread of music loving. Mark, for example plays several instruments including the accordion and harmonica. At an event in 2007, attendees were given harmonicas as they filed in. mark entered, playing one, and then the audience joined in which may be the only harmonica-fest in tech sector history.
Keynote speakers for the main Tech Ed speak the day before at the smaller, more intimate Community Day. They are asked to play a musical instrument to precede the main event and set the tone for the gathering.
Over the coming days I will be speaking with additional members of the Mentor group and sharing notes here. They will certainly be included in the book that comes from this effort.
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