The design brief is simple: integrate the outgoing supply chain that takes corporate product or service documentation out to users with the social media that may arise to address those same products or services. The benefits are also clear: leverage user experience, interest, and advice to everyone’s advantage.

After that, it gets confusing.

Corporate structures are brand-directed and very controlled, while social media is uncontrollable, individualistic (if not anti-brand), and hyperbolic. That’s why we love it, but how could a corporation trust it with their babies?

What does integration mean in this context? If you hire someone to help with social media, you may lose the integrity of independence. If the social media is independent and you endorse it, do you taint it? It’s likely to change rapidly, so how can you keep your position up to date? If you just react to it, how is that different than focus groups? I’ll argue that integration means, somehow, placing social media into an iteration loop in the documentation supply chain.

The scariest scenario is bringing independent outsiders to your breast and having them blast your new release. On the other hand, they’ll do that anyway, so the question is how quickly you’ll respond, and how? Who said “Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer?”

But let’s draw a distinction between unaffiliated commentators and those who are working in companies that are your customers. The former are always going to be less controllable, while the latter will likely cooperate with a cross-company integration. Just as an enlightened company will look to incorporate social media into its communications strategy, its customers will be exploring social media for its user-centric focus as a means of improving its own business practices.

Let’s assume that when social media is being practiced by independent outsiders, it will be a matter of chance whether their behavior is consistent with a corporation’s goals. When it works because all of the stars have aligned, as has happened at moments for Apple, Google, and even IBM and Microsoft, then it can be great. At other times, it may be ugly. Perhaps it’s just too early to draw those people too close.

But when the audience is composed of social media practitioners at client companies, then the field is open to all forms of social media: blog, wiki, twitter, IM, and other practices. For example, it’s easy to imagine deploying a documentation set via a wiki that issuing and client companies can both update, perhaps with a dedicated editor at the source company to keep brand, message, and metaphors consistent. That leaves the challenge of how that material gets integrated back into the supply chain so that it can feed the next release…

These are early thoughts, and tools such as wikis are low-hanging fruit. How will the less document-centric media be integrated? What new forms of relationship will develop around these practices? How can this be extended to independent outsiders?

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