Super connector: The new role to drive social value

MyCustomer.com
Leon Benjamin
Director of Digital Services
Ecademy Ltd
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Leon Benjamin explains why modern organisations require a super connector, whose sole responsibility is to create the same levels of connectivity, collaboration and productivity achieved by open source movements, conversational software and social media platforms.

Mass action and mass participation enabled by internet-mediated social software has forced political u-turns, embarrassing corporate climb downs, regime change, and put presidents into office. The biggest story of the 21st century is the realisation that a 2,000-year-old model of centralised, command and control organisation is unable to adapt to an ‘outside world’ that is increasingly network-centric and decentralised. It isn’t fit for purpose. It’s that simple.

Business and government aren’t structured or designed to cope with this rate of change and it’s apparent even to ‘the man in the street’ they’ve struggled to understand, react and adapt to a seemingly endless stream of social, economic and political crises, many of which don’t even arise in their own countries.

This article makes the case for the role of a 'super connector' in large organisations whose sole responsibility is to create the same levels of connectivity, collaboration and productivity achieved by open source movements, conversational software and social media platforms. It recognises the need for evolution rather than revolution and most importantly describes the end game, the end state; and the implications for leadership, employees, revenue, stakeholder return and market valuation.

Before we start, it’s worth taking a look at the table below. It describes the differences between the old industrial economy and the new network economy. Clearly we’ve been in transition for some time and few people would argue against the new economy trends. However, it doesn’t convey the sheer speed at which markets are changing and whilst most organisations can rightly claim they’re ‘living and breathing’ the new economy, many struggle to keep up.

Productive professionals make big enterprises competitive, yet these employees increasingly find their work obstructed. Creating and exchanging tacit knowledge through interaction with their professional peers internally and externally is ‘what they do’. Yet most of them squander endless hours searching for the knowledge and access to people they need, even when it resides in their own companies.

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(Click the table above to enlarge) 

Mckinsey reported in 2005, "Each upsurge in the number of professionals who work in a company leads to an almost exponential — not linear — increase in the number of potential collaborators and unproductive interactions. Many leading companies now employ 10,000 or more professionals, who have some 50 million potential bilateral relationships. The same holds true for knowledge: searching for it means trying to find the person in whose head it resides, because most companies lack working 'knowledge markets'."

One measure of the difficulty of this quest is the volume of global corporate email, up from about 1.8 billion a day in 1998 to more than 17 billion a day in 2004. As finding people and knowledge becomes more difficult, social cohesion and trust among professional colleagues declines, further reducing productivity”.

The traditional theory of the firm was about the unitary, rational actor that more or less controls all the pieces of the puzzle that it needs in order to produce its outputs but today global companies are a part of a huge set of interlinked networks across the planet, creating value by any means necessary, no longer constrained by hierarchical relations and boundaries. Crucially, there’s been very little innovation in labour models, transparency and the decentralisation of decision making, the hallmarks of network centricity, that enable an organisation to innovate and change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious.

Major problem solving activities and the creation of new ideas is still the reserve of a small number of people at the top who lack the diversity of inputs needed to come up with the kind of innovation that enables the organisation to compete. The future of an organisation is as much about the nature of its issues, as it is about its capacity to invent social structures able to solve them. That’s why social software is at its most transformative inside the organisation and the implications for its performance, sustainability, value and long term survival, are far reaching.

Enter the role of the super connector – the guardian of an organisation’s DNA, it’s personality, it’s heart beat – a collective, collaborative group that creates a social fabric in which peer-to-peer production can occur; a form of production that brings with it unimaginable levels of value creation.

What is a super connector?

The term super connector refers to a group, a single entity. In traditional terms it’s a function like IT, finance and other shared services. It has a leader but not with the word ‘chief’ in their job title, as in chief listening officer or chief network officer because ‘chief’ implies and re-enforces the very command-and-control behaviours a super connector seeks to change. Network leader is more appropriate because leaders get their support and power from the ‘bottom’ of the organisation where as chiefs and managers get theirs from the ‘top’.

For the purpose of this article super connector refers to both the role as network leader and a functional group that delivers a portfolio of network services to the organisation, its partners and suppliers. It must have a wide range of technical and social (or community management) capabilities if it is to create value for the organisation.

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Figure 1 - Super Connector Capabilities (click to enlarge)

The human resources (HR) function is traditionally responsible for pay & rewards, regulatory compliance, and talent acquisition. Given how much of this is outsourced, one has to wonder exactly what role HR has to play in a networked economy. The most visionary HR professionals will see their role as the sponsor of a super connector that serves and joins up the core silos that exist in all large organisations. HR functions have to evolve into active enablers of knowledge flow and connectivity across the entire business ecosystem or risk consigning themselves to a bit part in the 21st century organisation, where HR may well come to stand for hardly relevant.

An internal technical capability is critical because if you can’t build real social sharing applications for your own people, you can’t begin to understand why it changes their behaviour. Why would anyone want to outsource these insights to a third party? Of course partner with specialist agencies, but responsibility has to be taken for service design at a technical level to ensure compatibility, ease of integration with existing systems, and data analysis – the value of which cannot be over stated. If an organisation insists upon subject matter experts for new HR and finance systems, why shouldn’t it do the same for social media applications?

The mandatory areas of in-house technical competencies are:

Social software development. Whilst it’s preferable to work with partners on software development, it’s equally important to have the capability to respond to internal needs for tools that are specific to the business. The development of these tools need developers co-located with subject matter experts such that short term anomalies and trends can be exploited ‘on the fly’. Without this, 21st century organisations cannot adapt and cope with the rate of change. Expertise in open source software engineering, social media, data security and integrity, application integration and infrastructure are a minimum.

User experience design (UXD). There’s an interesting consensus emerging in HR and IT circles that current end user applications are not sufficiently productive and easy to use as the web, gaming and mobile applications the next generation of employees (so called generation Y) have grown up with. This restricts the organisation’s ability to attract and retain new talent who prefer to work in smaller companies that allow them to use these (cool) applications. I’ve worked recently in one global brand that is unashamedly proud of a mainframe-based room booking application that’s so complicated to use, even the most experienced end user needs administrative support to operate it. Unbelievably they’re happy to pay for expert resource to operate the application on behalf of busy project managers instead of just retiring it and this posture speaks volumes about this brand’s commitment to enriching its employee experience. Apple Mac and iPhone applications are releasing explosive creativity, so why this can’t be achieved inside the organisation? In-house UX Designers and Information Architects can dramatically reduce the cost of IT application support by adopting (and improving) the support models used by the big social media platforms.

Change management. Execution is everything. Rigorous project management and agile software development practices are non-negotiable. Without professional, timely delivery of operationally robust applications, there is no credibility for the super connector which must be seen to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’.

Data analytics. The value of data derived from customer and employee interactions, in terms of their behaviours and preferences provide the organisation with the ability to predict demand for new products, tools and services whilst at the same time, drastically reducing the risk of getting it wrong when they’re made a reality. Resources are needed to continuously analyse information ‘from the front’ and disseminate it throughout the organisation. This provides an essential positive feedback loop to the entire organisation that stimulates the changes in attitude and behaviour it seeks.

Social competencies refer to ‘soft skills’, emotional intelligence and the capability to create and sustain communities of practice and include:

  • Communications. The super connector must understand the organisation’s internal communications infrastructure and be able to leverage it, programmatically if necessary (for example Microsoft Exchange, intranet servers, Blackberry servers). This includes how people receive, transmit and organise their data through shared network drives and email folders and how the organisation delivers information to end users in set piece forums and meetings – business rhythms.
  • Community management & facilitation. Real value comes less from managing knowledge and more — a lot more — from creating and exchanging it. Etienne Wenger, the ‘father’ of the academic study of online communities “is an educational theorist and practitioner, best known for his more recent work in the field of communities of practice. Wenger holds that learning is an inherently social process and that it cannot be separated from the social context in which it happens” (source: Wikipedia). Community managers facilitate and accelerate professional and social exchange, and enable employees to establish a bond of common experiences and challenges, and build networks of relationships which are leveraged offline. Skills in creating, moderating and sustaining communities of practice internally and externally are vital to the overall success of the Super Connector.
  • Networks & connectors. This includes a wide range of activities but at its core is responsible for finding connectors, influencers and agents of change across the organisation. A range of services should be provided from social network analysis (finding knowledge experts and influencers by mining email and telephone connections) to stimulating and hosting offline forums and events.

In summary:

The super connector is a network. A network with ‘clue’ and the ability to execute. It’s not a single person, although does have a leader, but instead a group of people dedicated to delivering services that extract untold value from existing resources. In effect, ‘doing better with less’. But it does need the same level of investment as any other strategic shared service. In return, the Super Connector can bring about profound measurable organisational benefits in revenue, productivity and the cost base. So what’s the value proposition?

In part two of this article, Leon Benjamin explains the business case for a super connector in your organisation. Click here for the second part.

Leon Benjamin is a social software, online community and Web 2.0 practitioner, as well as author of Winning by Sharing - http://winningbysharing.typepad.com/

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02nd Nov 2009 12:29

still prevalent in government and much of big business has to be a way forward, if only to adapt to the way people now consider their natural way of interacting.

Structure is fine as long as it has the flexibility in-built to adapt to change without causing root and branch upset. I'm convinced many of the redundancies seen during the latest recession could have been avoided if only roles were fit for a purpose, i.e. serving the customer, instead of labouring under some impossible numbers dictated by a hierarchy of petit chefs (jobsworths) that could hardly be bothered to equip its people to do the job in the fist place. France Telecoms' wave of suicides is a case in point.

A super-connector is a role that big business has to embrace. Someone that comes out from behind the wall and shows that, in a world of commoditized goods and services, people are working for people here. When will the relationship be something that we pay more than lip service to via ads and automatic marketing (or demands)? Instead of just a water cooler moment inside the gilded cage, what about a water cooler moment with some of our customers? Is that so difficult to foresee and implement?

People need genuine connection now more than ever if we're ever to realise mutual value. And this has as much to do with a better return in hard economic terms as much as anything to do with soft and fluffy human aspects so often despised in business circles. Last time I checked, we were still dealing with people. If you've ever been treated as a meaningless number, read this again.  

Great piece Leon!

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By imptwo
03rd Nov 2009 09:22

I was not aware of your work prior to reading this piece, Leon - fascinating stuff. I had a very real "axis shift" moment whilst reading it; concluding with "well, a lot more things that I have seen in clients make sense to me now"! So thank you, sincerely, for your insights.

One piece of behaviour that has always fascinated me in large companies is the way in which senior executives seem unable to navigate their own organizations confidently. They are not sure about where the knowledge and experience really exists - even what intellectual and knowledge assets there are to be accessed and utilised. Many, I think, understand instinctively the need for super-connectivity but do not know how to express that thought - much less put in place a super-connector team/network.

Often, they will engage firms of consultants to do "research" or "analysis" with a sub-text of navigating the organization to find the subject-matter experts, and pools of knowledge on the topic that already exist. Indeed, the old joke about consultants borrowing your watch to tell you the time has this grain of truth - the answers to the questions posed often already exist within the orgsanization, but the senior management has no means of accessing it themselves.

This is more than silo-mentality, although I agree that is both a major stumbling block to change and a significiant hindrance to business performance, it is a 'blindness' to what is already known but locked away from sight. The re-assertion of our human instincts for social groups and sharing, developed as survival techniques over millenia, and now mediated electronically might (just) be the key to future business success.

Ian Mapp
ian.mapp@budd.uk.com

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03rd Nov 2009 18:30

Thanks for your comments, Ian - I'm glad to hear that Leon has given you some food for thought!

You can follow Leon's thoughts at http://winningbysharing.typepad.com/ and there are other contributions from him here on MyCustomer.com:

Social media on the inside: Are firms missing the point?
Leon's podcast on Web 2.0 - part one
Leon's podcast on Web 2.0 - part two

 And don't forget that we'll be posting the second part of Leon's excellent essay on the role of the super connector next week!

 

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By oaxaca
16th Nov 2009 01:37

Thank you for your kind words Shaun.  This is why Change Comes from Within.

 

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By oaxaca
16th Nov 2009 09:17

Thank you for your kind words Ian.

“The future of a company depends less on the nature of it issues, and more on its capacity to invent social structures able to solve them”, Jean Francois Nobel. The adoption of social media in the workplace is of such strategic importance that it must start with discussions about behaviours and models of trust and end with debates about software and platforms.  That’s the point.

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