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This is my third try with this new book. That's not nearly as bad as it may sound.
Scoble and I tried seven names before we came up with Naked Conversations. I don't even have a proposal yet, never mind a publisher or publishing date, so there is still lots of time.
But having a working title, even one that may change a few times, makes it easier to talk about my book. And the process of name requires me to focus thoughts on what this book is about in the simplest, clearest possible terms.
So let me try again:
--How Online Enterprise Communities improve products, markets & profits
This is a book about large enterprises and how their dedicated social networks are lowering the borders between them and their customers and partners. It is an attempt to address the lingering questions of social medias business value as well as where and how social media teams and programs fit into existing business practices.
In my prior two books, I've championed the tools of social media. I have argued that their business use was early and disruptive; that measurement was early and primitive. Over time, I argued, the early disruption would come to an end and that standards for measuring value would become more refined and easier.
My overwhelming focus in writing more than one million words about social media has looked at public venues such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest. So have the traditional media and most of the burgeoning social media community. It's where so much action has been. There's conflict, adventure, celebrity walk-thrus, natural disasters and occasional sexuality.
It makes good copy, and yes, it also makes good business.
But where most of us have not looked is behind the firewalls of some of the world's largest organizations; companies with tens of thousands of corporate customers and partners; companies whose products are in the hands of hundreds of millions of end users who depend upon those products to conduct a majority of the world's business.
It turns out that there is a great deal of downright exciting social media action going on in the bellies of some of the biggest--and perhaps most boring--of technology enterprises.
The result are networks of online communities, built by huge enterprises for developers, customers, partners and employees to come together and share information and ideas. These private and semi-private social networks rarely have discussion of lunch menus and in my research I didn't find a single flirtation.
But I do see real business going on. I see new marketplaces that independent analysts say have values in the tens of billions of dollars. I see ideas and information being shared at high speed and with great accuracy in communities that are usually under a half-dozen years old but have attracted tens of millions of users.
This book will explore online enterprise communities. Much more than my previous books, the primary focus will be on business-to-business, which it turns out, has developed pretty much in the same way as business-to-consumer and peer-to-peer communities.
Blurring Boundaries will examine in depth six enterprises: IBM, Intuit, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and possibly SAS. I will report on the history, structure and issues of their online social networks. I will look at how these communities are changing or have changed business models and strategy for the better during a period of great economic pressure.
A few days later Scott Gulbransen at Intuit, a company serving consumer and small business markets told me just about the same thing, despite clear differences between how Intuit and SAP's communities are organized and who they serve.
This book will explain that online community collaboration is shortening product development and improving product functionality and design because the people who use them are talking directly with the people building them. They are likewise, reducing time-to-market and marketing costs.
Online enterprise communities are also bring sanity to Terms of Agreement, product standards, developer certification programs, appropriate community behavior by allowing those who must adhere to these governing factors contribute to the rulebooks as they are written.
Blurring Boundaries also examines the issues of where social media teams and online communities belong on an enterprise org chart. Almost invariably, social media in corporations, began as skunkworks projects, places where small teams of bright people were allowed to experiment. Allotted small budgets, they were protected from the sea anchors of labyrinthine enterprise processes so that they could move with greater agility than systems in place would allow.
But they have grown fast and that speed is accelerating with millions of community members participating and billions of dollars of value in the marketplaces being created, the managers who recently disdained social media projects as having no real business value are now struggling with the inevitable process of assimilation. Each of these companies has dealt with this issue in different ways. This book will examine each and compare the results.
Blurring Boundaries will not answers the ubiquitous question of where's the ROI of social media. That question remains as daunting to answer as placing ROI on email or a telephone.
But it will show that there is real business value being generated because of online enterprise communities. And that billions of dollars in products and services are being generated as a real result.
People will walk away understanding that social media in business is at the end of it's early disruptive phases and is now entering the longer period in which use of the tools are normalizing, are becoming part of business practices and are valuable centers for the modern enterprise.
I've decided on a working title for my new book, unless of course, someone tells me why it's a bad idea:
--How online communities help companies & customers mutually profit.
When I interviewed Mark Finnern, who runs SAP's mentor program, he told me that the companies community networks were blurring the lines between the company and it's customers. The same perception came up again when I interviewed Intuit's Scott Gulbransen who talked about an ongoing collaborative process in communities that let the users say what they wanted in products in discussion with those who built it.
Then there's the whole ROI issue, which I view with the same ambiguity as measuring the ROI in a telephone. You really can't find the answer, but there must be a way to measure value. I will not be able to report that online communities are delivering directly to enterprise bottom lines. If they were, public companies would not be able to discuss specifically anyway. But my early research indicates that hundreds of millions of dollars are being realized by both companies and customers because of online communities.
I talked recently with Ray Wang, a partner at Altimeter Group who covers enterprise ecosystems--a major component of the book. He estimated that the SAP ecosystem had created a marketplace for the company, it's customers and partners of about $80 billion, with the lion's share being enjoyed by the partners and customers.
I asked him how much of that was being delivered by online communities. He explained that while very little--if any-- profit was being derived directly from the communities, a great deal was coming because of them. "The heart of the ecosystem is the community," he told me. "You cannot take them away. The level of connection is what gives the ecosystems life."
The novel concept is that companies and customers have historiacally seen themselves in a symbiotic tug of war. One makes and markets; the other buys and uses. One side's expense is the other side's profit. That perspective is starting t be seen through a new prism, one where both buyer and seller thrive or flounder together. This changes a great deal, I believe, and Blurry Lines will examine how this fluidity between company and customer change all marketplace dynamics.
The concept of the ecosystem coming to life because the communities are at their heart is yet another key point of this book. I was tempted to call this book "It's Alive!," until Lon Cohen who follows me on Twitter commented that the title sounds a bit like a cheesy horror movie.
So how does "Blurry Lines" sound to you for a book title? I may change it at some point down the line, but I really need a name right now. For me it's like having a new baby, who I'm calling "the kid," because I can't come up with a name I like.
Tell me what you think.
Intuit is one of at least five companies that I plan to profile in depth for my new--still nameless--book. The others are essentially big business-to-big business players.
But Intuit is business-to-small business and consumer. My particular interest is the small business side an area generally considered to be too fragmented, limited in budget and late to adopt to be a profitable area to serve.
Yet, every small business needs to manage its books and tax records and Intuit is the overwhelming supplier of automated products in this area.
Scott said Intuit has 50 million individual and small business users. It started its online communities about three years ago and today has 3.5 million active users. About 400,000 are small business users. Both numbers are growing.
Last week, I talked with Scott Gulbransen, a senior PR/Social media manager for Intuit's TurboTax group. It was an overview, the first of what will be a series of talks with Intuit, its customers and third-party developers.
Like other companies, Intuit did not wake up one morning and devise a grand strategy for online communities. In fact, it was more an outgrowth of issues that would keep company officials awake at night: how to migrate from a company whose products sold off retail shelves to one whose products are downloaded from the internet.
Scott didn't say it, but in the early-to-middle 2000s, Intuit lost luster as an innovator and some wondered if the company would remain as an independent entity. The company started to fumble with an online strategy and as it did, Scott told me, "a sense of community was woven into corporate DNA."
Like SAP, the communities are part of a larger something that both companies call "ecosystems." Both companies see the ecosystem as core to corporate strategy, but they've structured them differently. SAP has folded its network of communities into an Ecosystem and Partners Group, Intuit's communities are assigned to product groups and operated separately from each other.
Still, it assembles into an ecosystem strategy. At Intuit, developers collaborate at the back end, telling each other how to make applications succeed. And the strategy makes traditional command and control approaches obsolete.
“An ecosystem makes you get out of the way. You build a platform and enable. At the end of the day everybody benefits. Your marketplace becomes a living breathing thing,” he said.
Despite these different approaches, the outcome seems to be the same. The lines between company, customers and third-party vendors and partners get blurred as products, services, policies are developed, delivered and refined in transparent, collaborative style, somewhat ad hoc style. While marketing may be responsible for communities, these communities have diminished the importance of traditional marketing tactics of drum rolls announcing releases and updates. Stealth modes make no sense in collaborative environments where companies ask customers how to make the products better.
While the company built these communities, and they host them on company space, Intuit does not presume to run these communities from what Scott told me.
The lines between customers and the company have became less clearly defined. Third-party vendors who might previously have been regarded as competitors or irrelevant, became partners.
The key issue in the communities "is no longer what's good for Intuit," Scott said, but "what's best for the customer." Coincidentally, it turns out that what's best for the customer is almost always best for Intuit in the long run.
To understand the core benefit to Intuit, Scott quoted Scott Cook, Intuit founder and chairman “In the moment feedback is a huge gift to companies. You want to do everything you can to foster more and more. This was not possible 30 years ago.”
The communities created a partnering process for product development and for helping each other, sometimes without an Intuit representative being involved at all. The communities become a "connection platform," one where ideas and information are shared and spread faster than was previously possible.
Scott feels that the social networks have a special value for small business practitioners. "Running a small business can be lonely. The biggest obstacle is to connect with others like yourself."
Intuit can help proprietors find others like themselves and because its online, they do not need to take time away from their operations to attend a workshop or events.
The social networks also serve as development platforms, giving independent software developers unprecedented access to a community of millions of small business operators and you can affordably address them as property owners, or dry cleaners or coffee shop proprietors.
"If you can build for QuickBooks, then you have a massive market opportunity," Scott told me.
One such example is Propertyware.com which helps smaller property owners and operators to manage cost and flow of rental properties. It lets small landlords better manage their properties, understand profits, cash flows. The company has no brick and mortar, but exists exclusively in the cloud.
Through a variety of services including Intuit Marketplace and old-fashioned email newsletter, Intuit has given this small virtual company the ability to speak to Intuit's customer base. When Propertyware acquires a new customer, that customer can go directly to Propertyware to purchase additional products. Intuit is fine with that. The customer benefits and Intuit's value to that customer goes up.
One other place that SAP and Intuit seem to agree. Online communities do not reduce the need for face-to-face meetings between people who primarily know each other through online communities. They increase it.
Both companies host a series of social events for their most passionate community members. It seems there still is a business value to handshakes, smiles and occasional hugs.[NOTE: Do you have a story about Intuit or any other enterprise social network? Please let me know. This book is in the early phases of development. And I can use the wisdom of this crowd. Leave a comment or send me an email.]