Business & Value, Guidance & How To, Social & Cooperation

‘Community’ and ‘social’: ambiguous terms

…… Part of The Basics series. First published in April 2010 ……


Vocabulary, vocabulary! The word “community” is just as difficult as “social” when you’re talking with senior management. They are trigger words that can make or break your pitch to management.

‘Community’: strong views for or against

The word “community” can be a good word or a bad word, depending on who you’re talking with. I recently worked with an organization where the word “community” is interpreted at the senior level to mean “sharing”, “breaking silos”, “knowledge'” and “innovation”. There is senior level support for the “community” initiatives in this organization and a strategic, decision-making governing body with senior managers. The word “community” resounds better than the word “intranet” or “portal”. So much so, that the intranet portal project may soon be placed under the “community” umbrella and be governed by the same high-powered group.

A short while back, I worked with another organization where there was unanimous agreement in an intranet workshop that the word “community” was to be avoid at all costs. I asked why: “It sounds like a sect” was the answer. The intranet managers present, from different countries, agreed.

‘Social business’: unclear and risky

‘Social’ is just as tricky. I did a private poll recently 12 intranet or online managers I know personally and consider to be advanced practitioners. I asked them what they think about ‘social business intranet’ as a term. Answers varied, but there only three who thought the term worked. They are in organizations with top management support for their social initiatives.

Other manager responses:

  • “It is difficult to sell to senior managers.”
  • “It may give the impression you’re only talking about social networks at work.”
  • “It doesn’t really make sense because generally people use the phrase ‘social life’ to distinguish it from their business life.  As such the phrase is an oxymoron.”
  • “The social in social media is not really understood by management.”
  • “My first reaction is that the shortcut ‘social business’  may be clear for us, but may not for people not involved in the Intranet world…Problem comes from the ‘social’ word. I am afraid association together can lead to possible misunderstandings. To break the shortcut, what about ‘social based business intranet’ or ‘social driven business intranet’ ?”
  • “My first reaction is that I’m not really sure I understand what you mean. Is it ‘Make business thanks to Intranet’s social network’ ?”
  • “While I understand what’s behind it, for me instinctively ‘social’ is too open to interpretation when divorced from its roots in ‘social media’, which is starting to have a recognized value for business (connect, collaborate…).”

Slightly more positive:

  • “It does make sense to me, although I would need to get accustomed to the sound of it. First reading I hear it as ‘social business’ “intranet… unlike ‘social intranet’ or ‘business intranet’… “
  • “Knowing I’m not a native English-speaking person, I am not sure my feedback will be accurate. Still, the term makes sense to me, but it could confuse if “social business” refers more to the business of social, if you see what I mean.”
  • “Interesting to bring together social and business with the notion of intranet. In my mind, social media put too much focus on ‘media’, and when discussing with potential stakeholders their reaction is very often: media = places for endless discussion or communication. They don’t see where the business stands.”

How to get around this?

  1. Know your organizational culture. Use words that will get you closer to your goals.
    Years ago I advised clients to stop using the term ‘blog’ and to speak about ‘one-click publishing tools’. That way you can get them into the enterprise, and move progressively to more interactive usages.
  2. Use business language in a tag line to explain whatever term you choose.
    For example,  ‘Social business intranet, where people make business happen.” or ‘Communities, where ideas and information are shared’. This is especially important in global organizations with many mother-tongues. The word ‘social’ can even be negative in some cases. An example is in French where ‘movement social’ is a euphemism for ‘strike’.
  3. Focus on the objectives, not the tools, in your messaging.
    Use words like “make it easier for people to find expertise”, “give our organization the capacity to respond faster to clients”, “reduce the risk of out-of-date information”, “increase our ability to follow industry trends”, and so on.