Here Comes the Neighborhood

I wrote a while back about why corporate managers might have a hard time getting comfortable with Enterprise 2.0 tools and approaches:

"We need to keep in mind that most E2.0 tools are new, and that their acceptance depends on shifts in perspective on the part of business leaders and decision makers, shifts for which the word ‘seismic’ might not be an overstatement. Enterprise 2.0 tools have no inherent respect for organizational boundaries, hierarchies, or job titles…"

I met a little while back with the leaders of a startup E2.0 company who showed me that those words were a little hasty and naive, and that vendors are coming up with tools that have some respect for existing organization structures, yet still  foster freeform and emergent collaboration

Awareness Networks builds, hosts, and deploys integrated E2.0 suites for an impressive roster of customers (I have no financial interest in Awareness, and have received no compensation from the company).  These suites include a variety of tools for both user-generated content and social networking, and are hosted by Awareness and integrated into a customer’s existing infrastructure for security and permissions.

As CEO John Bruce, CTO and co-founder David Carter, and VP of Marketing Eric Schurr walked me through their company and its offerings I found myself nodding along and saying to myself "Yep. Yep. Good idea. Good idea…" When they described how neighborhoods work within Awareness, I think I said "Great idea!" out loud.

Each Awareness installation is called a ‘community,’ and each community can contain multiple neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are simply ways to categorize the content that gets contributed over time, and are defined in advance by the people who commissioned the site. Since these people are usually the bosses of the company (or are at least acting on their behalf) neighborhoods tend to reflect the formal organizational structure or goals of the company, or some combination of the two. 

For example, a purely internal community (one that doesn’t include customers or suppliers) might have neighborhoods devoted to Sales, Marketing, R&D, ‘Suggestions,’ and ‘Our Values.’ An internal + external community might include neighborhoods like ‘Next Generation Products’ and ‘User Conference 2008.’ Bosses can control who has the ability to view, comment, edit, post, and vote by neighborhood. People can blog, contribute to wikis, participate in polls, votes, and discussions, upload photos and videos, etc. within any of these neighborhoods. Search, tagging, and linking work across all the content that a user can access, regardless of neighborhood.    

An Awareness community therefore has both imposed and emergent structure, in what feels to me like the right proportions. Neighborhoods are tools for bosses to  impose, up front, how they want content to be categorized. Users, however, probably don’t feel like this is too much of an imposition. They can still author, edit, link, and tag to their heart’s content; they’re just doing so underneath headings that have been specified in advance. So for example the VP of Marketing will probably blog within her neighborhood, but in a well-designed community anyone can find it, read it, link to it, or add a comment. 

By categorizing content, neighborhoods make communities easier to navigate and digest, and so make them appear friendlier to their users. I think the bigger benefit, though, might well be that neighborhoods make Enterprise 2.0 environments appear friendlier to bosses. Neighborhoods let bosses impose a bit of structure on what can otherwise seem like a formless and lawless environment, the online equivalent of an untamed frontier. Neighborhoods provide bosses with assurance that things will be orderly rather than chaotic.

It seems like this would be a good thing. What do you think? Leave a comment and tell us what you think of the concept of neighborhoods – would it help to spur E2.0 adoption within your company?