Does Viral Adoption of Enterprise Social Business Software work?

This is an issue I’ve been tracking, pretty much from the moment enterprise social computing hit the stage (later to become “Enterprise 2.0”, and what Dachis Group talk about now in the broader context of Social Business Design – see some of the conversations around the Connected Company in particular).

The short answer is yes, viral adoption can work BUT only in certain situations. This is my attempt to pin down some of the factors I’ve observed out in the field.

Firstly, let me explain what I mean by ‘viral adoption’:

  1. It may involve users by-passing IT (“CoIT“) or the initiative may have corporate sponsorship (to a degree) but the technology is planted without any deliberate effort to facilitate use (and it might even be called a pilot).
  2. The expectation is that the network effect will drive exponential growth.
  3. The software (and human network) is completely self regulating and requires no organised human oversight – i.e. administration, training, community management or content curation.

Looking at these three points, you can actually extrapolate potential issues. But when I compare those theoretical issues, these are the anti-patterns I’ve actually seen:

  • Competing Solutions – someone else has the same great idea, but attempts to solve it with a different solution. Sometimes one solution wins out, but sometimes everyone is a loser.
  • Late Adopters – it all goes well for the first wave of users, but there is a group of users who just ignore the invites and don’t participate. Eventually the network starts to lose momentum.
  • Works for one, but not another – similar to the Late Adopters anti-pattern, but in this case growth stalls not because people won’t use a solution but because the solution doesn’t actually meet the needs of subsequent groups.
  • Lack of Customisation – the solution meets 80% of needs, but can’t be customised to meet that remaining critical 20% that would make a real difference to the organisation. People get frustrated and move on to the next good idea.
  • Growing Too Fast – this is probably a situation many people who love to have, but rapid growth can also be killer when it happens. The social experience that worked for a handful of users at the beginning may not be effective for 1,000s or 10s of thousands.
  • Internal Politics / Lack of Budget – great idea, but for whatever reason the initiative is killed off. Often the stated reason is an excuse, so its hard to pin point the real reasons. Remember, organisations don’t always make decisions rationally.

Clearly these issues can be managed but the difficulty is that there is a cost to fixing these issues after they happen:

  • The organisational culture may not accommodate failure, making it difficult to come back and try again.
  • The pure cost and challenge of retrospectively addressing these issues may be considered too high.

I think a completely viral adoption approach is a big gamble when really what organisations need is an iterative approach that allows for the best solution to emerge. An iterative approach facilitates a network-based adoption approach, by steering and anticipating user needs based on social experience design. This allows the right supporting mechanism to be put in place, including the political and budget support that will be needed over the long term.

Image credit: Virus CC BY 2.0