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Angela Ashenden discusses the role of employee advocates in successful social collaboration adoption.

One of the most common aids to the successful adoption of a social collaboration initiative – be that an internal online community, an enterprise social network, or a social intranet, for example – is the advocate network. However strategic or high profile your initiative within your organisation (though many struggle to achieve a significant profile, at least to begin with), the reality is that once your new technology is implemented, the responsibility for driving adoption, and thereby ensuring that your investment is not completely wasted, falls to just one or two individuals. In an organisation of 100 people, that's quite a task, given that you are trying to get everyone to not only learn how to use the new tool, but to want to use it to support a more open, interactive and co-operative way of working. In a large enterprise, with 10,000, 50,000 or even several hundred thousand employees, it's clearly a non-starter. You need a way to extend your reach, to promote your message, and to find out how it's being received right across the business. This is where the advocate network comes in.

What’s in a name?

Whether you call them "advocates", "evangelists", "community managers" or "champions", this group of enthusiasts fundamentally provides a way to maximise the viral adoption opportunity for your initiative. The more people who understand and believe in the value of using your social collaboration platform, to help get their questions answered more effectively, to work collaboratively with their teams, or to support use cases that might be specific to your business, the faster the message can spread to the far reaches of the business. Not only can your advocates help train and support their peers in different parts of the business, they can contextualise - and even translate - your message for their specific division or region. For publishing and research firm Macmillan Science and Education (now Springer Nature), where collaboration is supported in 18 different languages, the advocate network’s role in providing local language support, as well as translation of corporate posts on the platform, has been hugely valuable.

Finding the right candidates

So how do you identify the best people to be advocates? Once you've launched your social collaboration platform, you'll find that candidates will come forward on their own, but it's a good idea to have your network established (or at least seeded) before launch, to maximise its impact. If you run a pilot phase, you'll be able to identify those pilot users who are most engaged or enthusiastic, but good candidates also include anyone who is already an active user of social tools, whether internal (for example if they've joined a free Yammer network, or have embraced other "freemium" tools to meet a particular collaboration need) or external (such as LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook).

The important thing to remember about the advocate role is that you need your advocates to want to help the initiative to succeed. So while it may be tempting to get managers to nominate individuals, this won't always get you the right people for the role.

Leading by example

When it comes to their responsibilities, first and foremost, your advocates need to embrace the new social collaboration platform themselves, actively sharing ideas, posting content, and asking and answering questions of the broader community. If they can help draw others into discussions – taking a community management or facilitation role – that's even better. But you want them to be your "super-users"; the experts that people in their local office or region can turn to when they have questions or issues, providing a first point of contact, but also encouraging and promoting peer-level co-operation and interaction. The last thing you want to promote is the concept of a central helpdesk; social collaboration is about democratic, non-hierarchical communication, and if a colleague can answer your question faster than an "expert", that's fantastic.

Surfacing those “aha” moments

From the perspective of the central adoption manager for your initiative, advocates offer a fountain of valuable information in addition to their role as a communications channel or as end-user support. As your adoption efforts gather pace, they can help you to identify actual use cases within your organisation where people are seeing real value from using the social collaboration technology. These are a goldmine for your adoption strategy, as you can use these to inspire others across the business, as well as to demonstrate your growing success with your stakeholders. They can help shape your training activities, and they can also help you to identify additional advocates for the platform as well.

Bear in mind that both the advocate role and the people in that role will change and evolve over time; with five years under its belt for its social collaboration initiative, education and technology firm Pearson finds that it now relies on its Evangelist network less for promotion, and more as an ear to the ground for success stories and feedback.

Make sure it’s a two-way street

One final point to note, however: while it's easy to see what an advocate network can do for you to help you drive adoption, remember that you need to nurture it appropriately in order to get the maximum benefit back. Your advocates need the right training, they need regular support and input from you, and they need to feel they are valued for their contribution. Since this role is likely to be in addition to their day job, you need to help them ensure support from their managers, and find a way to reward and celebrate their efforts.

The right investment in them will reap incredible benefits for your social collaboration initiative.

Angela Ashenden is principal analyst at MWD Advisors, a UK-based technology and industry research and advisory firm, where she specialises in social collaboration technologies and practices.

On October 15, Angela will be chairing Making Social Collaboration Work, an event focused on helping you deliver business value from social collaboration.

IOIC members are eligible for a 20% discount for this event. The discount code is available via the members area of this website (remember to log in first).

You can follow Angela on Twitter as @aashenden, and read her blog
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