Enterprise 2.0 – Three Lessons from Chemistry 101

Chemical reaction occurring with lightningAs a freshman sciences major, I sailed through courses in math, physics, biology, and astronomy – but struggled a bit with chemistry.

A couple of my early experiments generated colorful bubbling liquids not mentioned in the study guide, so after one particularly exothermic afternoon in the lab, a kindly graduate student took me aside and reminded me that there are really only three important factors in chemistry – reactants, process, and catalysts.

In one of those curious coincidences you’ll only find in a blog post, those are the same three factors that are crucial when implementing enterprise collaboration systems!

1. Reactants: for a chemical reaction to proceed, all the reactants, or ingredients, must be present.

When launching social media within an organization, you must have clearly defined value-driven use cases, one or more committed executive sponsors, and robust support within key departments such as IT, HR, Legal, and Communications. Having all these things doesn’t guarantee that a reaction will get sparked; but missing even one makes ignition unlikely.

2. Process: it’s really important to do things in the right order.

The Socialtext enterprise collaboration platform, for instance, includes wikis, people profiles, micro-blogging, collaborative spreadsheets, and customizable dashboards. The experimental evidence shows that most customers launch most effectively when they start horizontally with people profiles, groups, and Signals (micro-blogging). Then, once a vigorous community of practice has emerged, it’s much easier to roll out workspaces and blogs, so people can share and collaborate around detailed content.

3. Catalysts: many commercial chemical reactions would be uneconomic if allowed to operate at their normal speed, but immediately become viable when a catalyst is added to accelerate the reaction.

When implementing social media, start with the human catalysts, the people who know all kinds of people throughout the organization, often in functions and departments somewhat removed from their own. These people anchor the weak connections between small tightly-knit groups, so cultivate their participation and where possible get them to curate the discourse in their areas of specialty. Then add best practice catalysts such as online and live training sessions, team activities, contests, photo sharing, and data scavenger hunts.

In any business, internal transaction costs limit the conversations and products that are possible. Social media provide an important solution. And as Chemistry 101 taught me, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.


This post is part of the Enterprise Science series, which started 6/1/2010 with Enterprise 2.0 – Three Lessons from Biology 101. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on Physics 101 and Astronomy 101.