November 1, 2011

Bootstrapping Your Social Network

The problem has always existed in groupware: you clearly need more than one participant for the network to generate value. Successful networks usually begin with one or two zealous proponents, but without broader engagement the network will atrophy into oblivion. So what are the best approaches to bootstrapping your network? Some simple steps – before launch and in the early stages – will go a long way to making the online facility a success for your team.

Before Launch
One key early step is to enlist a few co-conspirators in the effort. Not only will they help add content, including commentary, but they can help evangelize and support the network once you launch. It’s also an important visual effect to see more than one person’s profile picture in the stream of activity! No matter how good or compelling you and your content are, the variety makes the network seem more interesting.

Think out the structure of the site, though this will evolve with usage. But creating groups in advance will help provide context and focus for new participants. Groups can help restrict access to content, and they can also enable access to people external to your organization (though they will only be able to gain access to the groups to which they are invited.)

One group you might want to create could be called something like Convofy Questions and Answers. Here you can post your insights about using the network, and others will be able to pose and answer questions.

Prepopulate the network with useful content. It’s important to make sure there is content on the network before people join. It’s a first impression thing: you want newcomers to see potential value right from the beginning.

A good way to start a community is to collect documents, images, reports, etc. that have been shared among the team – often in the form of email attachments or links to web pages. Some of this content may be fixed and final, and can be added simply as reference material. Other content might be the potential subject of additional commentary or discussion. When you add this content to your site, consider what kind of reactions it might generate: if people will want to comment, make sure you enable and encourage comments.

In many cases, adoption of a platform is easiest in a subset of the organization, where you can connect directly with members and work through any questions or concerns that arise. Pilot groups can vary in size, but it’s useful to have more than five participants, and anything larger than 20 will feel less like a pilot and more like a full launch. If your organization is small, the pilot step is obviously optional!

During Launch
Once you have your co-conspirators in place, primed the site with content (including a welcome document stored in the Convofy Questions and Answers group), and set up the structure, it’s time to formally kick off the network. An actual social event can be a fun way to do this, but there are many ways to introduce your organization to the network.  A kick-off doesn’t have to be a huge affair – it can be done as part of a regular team conference call, for example, and could even be done in 20 – 30 minutes. The key again is that you do the work up front, so their first impression is positive and they will know how to engage with the site.

Make sure your users are equipped with information on how to use Convofy. It might also be useful to pre-populate the network with a document on why Convofy will make everyone’s lives better. Here are some benefits you can include:

Knowledge sharing. By participating in the online environment, your group’s knowledge, decisions, questions and plans will all accrue in one central, shared location. This represents not only time saving, as people will more easily be able to find key content, but it also means a clearer and more widely shared understanding of the group’s mission.

Strengthened Relationships. Especially for teams that are spread across multiple locations, it’s difficult to develop a sense of team identity. It’s similarly difficult to get to know the individuals on your team with sparse real-time interactions and ill-focused email threads. An online environment enables teammates to engage more deeply, and asynchronously, than other methods.

Improved efficiency. Meetings and email have come to define how collaboration occurs within organizations. Yet these are increasingly exposed as inefficient ways to work: meetings often wade through information that could have been shared online; emails push content out to individual Inboxes through successive (often endless) messages. An online sharing environment won’t replace meetings or email but, by providing a place to capture background content and discussions, it will make meetings more productive, and email easier to digest.

New Idea Generation. By collecting content in a single, well-organized environment, myHMH will enable team members to better engage with the content and purpose of the group’s activities, and will likely stir new ideas, discussions and directions. This might currently happen, by luck, in the context of a meeting or a long email thread, but in the myHMH environment idea generation and sharing is not constrained by fleeting moments or messages that difficult to parse.

Early Days after Launch
Once the site is up and running and your teammates have been introduced, it’s likely that the community will need ongoing encouragement.  Make sure that you and your co-conspirators are active evangelists for the network. Be available and follow up with people to make sure they have the resources they need to be successful from the beginning.  Whenever possible, you can politely ask a colleague whether the excellent document they have just shared with you via email has also been uploaded to the shared environment.

Or, when you find yourself in the midst of a long and intractable email or thread, forward the thread to the unique email address for a relevant group, and notify the group of its new home.

When people add great content to the site, or when you observe a meaty discussion happening online, call it out! This can be done by email, as contradictory as that sounds, in meetings or on the site itself. When and if appropriate, share the success outside your group and show off!

This will likely be an ongoing process for several weeks, even months, as your teammates get acclimated to sharing online. However, if you believe the initial purpose statement, you and your team will get great results from your efforts.

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