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Adi is a social business blogger and community manager that writes for sites such as Social Business News and Social Media Today. Away from the computer he enjoys cycling, particularly in the Alpes. Adi is a DZone Zone Leader and has posted 1178 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

7 lessons lego can teach you about enterprise collaboration

03.21.2013
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Like many youngsters throughout the world I played with Lego bricks.  You can probably guess my age from the fact that most of my creations were Star Wars related.  Such was my enjoyment of the wonderful rectangular bricks that my parents took my brother and I on holiday to Legoland in Denmark, where amongst other things I passed my ‘driving test’ in a lego car.

Nice though trips down memory lane are, you may be asking what this has to do with social business.  Arguably the ultimate goal for any social business is for the boundaries between company and customer become so small that your customers are co-creating products for you.  Lego do this tremendously well.

Suffice to say that when I first played with Lego it was pre-Internet, yet even then there was a culture of sharing your creations with friends.  The Internet has taken that desire and transformed it.

They started with co-creation in 2005 with the creation of an Ambassador Program to enable super fans of the company to talk to one another.

New research has investigated how Lego have achieved such strong relations with their customer community.

Enterprise Collaboration Lessons from Lego

Through observing Lego communities in action and interviewing many of the participants the researchers believe they have got to the bottom of what has made Lego so successful at engaging with its users.  The beginning of their journey was one that is perhaps familiar to many of us.

In the late 90′s they introduced Lego Mindstorms, which contained software allowing users to create their own robotic Lego creations.  Lego users began hacking the software however and shared their new creations online.  Lego was faced with a stark choice.  They could either shut down the hackers through the courts, or they could bring them on board as co-collaborators on new Lego products.

It’s a choice many community builders face in their early days.  Do you embrace the chaos and uncertainty or remain in your controlled world?  History clearly shows which path Lego took, but it went through several iterations before it reached its current state.  To begin with user generated ideas were vetted by Lego staff.  If it was deemed worthy then it was placed into production.

After a turbulent spell and a change in leadership the company decided to open up innovation to the community, initially through the Ambassador program created in 2005, allowing not only collaboration with customers but also suppliers that would enable Lego to churn out more advanced products.  This modular approach was borrowed from the open source community and allowed manufacturers to design for the Lego ecosystem.

Key Building Blocks For Open Collaboration

The researchers have identified a number of key lessons from the Lego story.

(1) Use external suppliers to fill in your gaps – If you don’t have expertise in a particular area or a niche is too small for you to devote resources to centrally, opening up to external suppliers can help you fill in gaps in your reach.

(2) Utilize the ‘weak ties’ in your community – #1 can succeed because the Lego community of users is wide and varied, and often contains skills and knowledge that Lego itself do not.  A key advantage is that outsourcing innovation to the community ensures that the cost of failure is very low, whilst Lego can tap into that knowledge and internalise it.

(3) Develop clear rules and expectations – The last thing you want to do is frustrate customers that are giving their hard earned time to your cause, so it’s really important to establish clear expectations about how it will work.

(4) Make sure both sides win – Receiving new innovations represents a clear win for Lego, but for customers to continue giving their time and insight they need to get something tangible from the process as well.  Motivation studies trumpet the value of intrinsic rewards over financial or extrinsic rewards.

(5) Customers aren’t employees – Whilst many fans of Lego were highly devoted to the brand they got as much enjoyment out of collaborating with other fans as they did with the company itself.  I spoke in my last blog about the value that comes when you get customers talking to each other and it should not be underestimated.

(6) There is no one community member – Community members are all different so it won’t be possible to create an identikit community user.  Therefore you should offer multiple means of communicating with your community, both in how you do it and the depth of expertise you look for.

(7) Be open and transparent – I mentioned back in March that opening up ideas is a great way to ensure that they flourish, and this was just what Lego found.  Initially they used NDAs to prevent customers from sharing ideas with competitors, but now they use these legal straight jackets very rarely.

Whilst many organizations will see few parallels between what they do and what Lego do, I think these lessons can be applied regardless of your business or industry.  Developing a customer ecosystem was something that Lego could no longer avoid and the chances are great that it is something you can ill afford to avoid at your company either.