Sign up with your email address to be the first to know about new products, VIP offers, blog features & more.

The Three-Axis Problem – Conversations ABOUT, WITH, and AMONG

Like most people I’m often kind of amazed when my mouth does my thinking for me – both good amazed and bad amazed. yesterday, meeting with a prospective client, and trying to explain the way I think through the problem of implementing social media I improvisationally explained something well enough that I want to get it down in text before I forget it.

What I explained is that “social media in the enterprise is a three-axis problem.”

The three axes are:


…as in conversations ABOUT you, conversations WITH you, and conversations AMONG you.

And that you need to solve the problem in all three, but prioritize the axes based on the specifics of the organization and its situation.

So let’s take a moment and amplify what I mean by ‘ABOUT, WITH, AMONG.’

Conversations about you are conversations that people are having – literally – about you. When I comment about a restaurant on Yelp, that’s part of a conversation about that restaurant. When Dave Carroll put up ‘United Breaks Guitars,’ that was part of a conversation about United.

That is to say that United and the restaurant weren’t involved in the conversations – but the conversations were still deeply important to the restaurant and United.

Conversations with you are conversations that outsiders have with you – about you, them, or issues of common interest. I’m conversing with Southwest Airlines on the ‘Nuts About Southwest’ blog, or when I make a recommendation to Starbucks on the My Starbucks Idea storm (Ideastorm site).

Conversations with you are the obvious indicator of brand engagement, and also are – if really used – the tool to keep issues from spinning out into negative conversations about you (if Dell had talked to Jeff Jarvis, would he have written ‘Dell Hell’?? If United had talked with Dave Carroll, would he have made ‘United breaks Guitars’??).

And finally, conversations among employees and team members are an often overlooked part of the use of social media.

I developed my interest in social media through studying agile management processes. In the seminal article on empowered teams – Borland Software Craftsmanship: A New Look at Process, Quality and Productivity – by James Coplien the summary jumped out at me:

The Borland Quattro Pro(tm) for Windows (QPW) development is one of the most remarkable organizations, processes, and development cultures we have encountered in the AT&T Bell Laboratories Pasteur process research project. The project assimilated requirements, completed design and implementation of 1 million lines of code, and completed testing in 31 months. Coding was done by no more than eight people at a time, which means that individual coding productivity was higher than 1000 lines of code per staff-week. The project capitalized on its small size by centering development activities around daily meetings where architecture, design, and interface issues were socialized. Quality assurance and project management roles were central to the development sociology, in contrast to the developer-centric software production most often observed in our studies of AT&T telecommunications software. Analyses of the development process are “off the charts” relative to most other processes we have studied.

The document analyzes the inner workings of the team, and points out a number of significant things:

We most frequently use a natural force-based network analysis to analyze organization data collected in the Pasteur data base. This analysis produced an adjacency diagram. In these diagrams, a default repelling force is established between each pair of roles. There is also an attracting force between pairs of roles that are coupled to each other by collaboration or mutual interest; a stable placement occurs when these forces balance. Figure 2 shows the picture that results by applying this analysis to QPW. There are several things worth noting in these pictures that set them apart from most other organizational process models we’ve made. Here is a summary of those properties:

The QPW process has a higher communication saturation than 89% of the processes we’ve looked at. The adjacency diagram shows that all roles have at least two strong connections to the organization as a whole. The project’s interaction grid is dense. The coupling per role is in the highest 7% of all processes we have looked at. This is a small, intensely interactive organization.

There is a more even distribution of effort across roles than in most other processes we’ve looked at. The roles in the adjacency diagram are shaded according to their intensity of interaction with the rest of the organization. In the QPW process, Project Manger and QA glow brightly; Coders a little less so; Architect, Product Manager, and Beta Sites are “third magnitude stars”; and Tech Support, Documentation, and VP still show some illumination. Most “traditional” processes we’ve studied show a much higher concentration of interaction near the center of the process. That is, most other processes comprise more roles that are loosely coupled to the process than we find in QPW. That may be because QPW is self-contained, or because it is small. It may also be because the process was “intense”: a high-energy development racing to hit an acceptable point on the market share curve.

That’s an academic way of saying that ‘everyone communicated with everyone else’ and that communication isn’t channeled through a few people – ‘everyone gets to talk.’

Those are pretty good principles for social media, as well.

And given that a major goal of most organizations I deal with is efficiency, showing that you can get that by flattening communications hierarchies, while also empowering employees and so ‘turning them on’ is a benefit of social media that is often overlooked (which is why I’m quoting so much about it).

So if we step back a second, we see conversations inside the organization; conversations crossing the organizational boundary, and conversations outside the organization.

A simplified set of goals is to manage all three; to encourage positive (constructive, approving) conversations outside the organization, while welcoming negative conversations across the organizational boundary (how else are you going to engage problems?), while encouraging rich (widely distributed, emergent) conversations within the organization.

This week, I’ll try and write more about all three, as well as strategies for making them interact (using conversation with to change and trigger conversation about…).