by Erica Driver.

I am at the first day of the Business Innovation Factory conference ("BIF-3") in Providence, Rhode Island. Sitting around me are 350 people who came together to share stories about collaborative innovation in business. Bif3 One of storytellers this morning was Euan Semple, who up until about 18 months ago was the head of knowledge management for the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). Now he’s an independent consultant. Today, the BBC has 23,000 bulletin board users, about 4,000 wiki users, and 400 to 500 people who are blogging. The company is getting enormous value out of this, but it didn’t happen overnight. The BBC has been experimenting with Social Computing for a long time; they built internal networks using forum software before blog tools came to be. Lessons learned at the BBC:

  • Enterprise Web 2.0 can be the catalyst for a more collaborative business environment. The BBC had done a lot of work to try to create a more collaborative work environment. The BBC World Service, for example, has 47 language services. People need to work together who come from wildly different backgrounds (cultures, languages, etc.). How to make this happen? As it turned out, the BBC’s internal forums, which only cost the company about 200 pounds, got the company to be more collaborative than the more formal initiatives did.
  • Experiment, start small, and make sure ownership is clear. Using Social Computing tools at work is very different from the way most of us are used to working. Managers, for example, may need time to get used to a flatter kind of environment, where people are off doing their own thing. One thing that helped at the BBC was that the forum environment was collectively owned; this helped people take responsibility for how it was used.
  • Trust breeds trust. The BBC found that when people are given responsibility, the right tools, and a little coaching, most of them will do the right thing. And as people gain experience with Social Computing tools, the value of their efforts increases. While Semple didn’t get into this in his story, I’ll add here that creating a solid policy about appropriate use of tools like blogs, wikis, virtual worlds (a policy that has teeth) — and educating the workforce about that policy — can go a long way toward helping employees and management feel comfortable with what is going on.
  • Go where you’re not quite comfortable going. This is the source of innovation. At the BBC, employees were allowed to post on internal forums about anything they wanted to. Someone started a conversation about the pros and cons of being single. This evolved into something awfully close to a dating service. Managers, as you might imagine, were cringing. But before long one of the producers came to Euan Semple saying he was about to do a program on being single, and the employees who had participated in the forum about dating had done half the work for him. Great example of something that didn’t seem business like ending up delivering true business value.