image by dharmabumx, flickr artist

i was listening in on a social media community of practice presentation today that a colleague of minewas giving about social media in the enterprise and individual performance.

while i feel that my colleague has done some great work — and really took a rather large bite to create a conceptual model for promoting participation in online networks which is itself valiant — i think it’s important to make the distinction between participation, and adoption. it’s a distinction that i feel is greatly overlooked.

mike’s model talked about awareness, self-efficacy, organizational trust, and this notion ofperceivedimprovement potential all being drivers of participation. and i think that’s wrong. in fact, i think it’s exactly backwards.

you might think that i’m splitting hairs right now; toe-may-toe, toe-mah-to, right? but participation and adoption do have rather different connotations despite the fact thatoften times you’ll hear those two words usedinterchangeably. i think, however, that you’ll find one is far moredesirable(and much harder to come by) than the other. in fact, one leads to the other.

of the two, participation is far easier to accomplish. it’s really as simple as griping and grinning… virtually of course. when many people join online communities, they are timid. they appear to be introverted whilst they become acclimated to their new digital surroundings. i’ve written about introversion before (see

here, and here), so i won’t go into much detail in this post — but it’s important to realize that some introverts just need a little push and others just a little time. so in using social media — twitter, yammer, blogs, wikis, etc. — just reaching out with a “hello and welcome..” is all that person may need.

you can raise participation through this ‘welcome wagon’ as we call it on our yammer network, and from involving people in conversations. “hey, jesse, i see you’re on the ___ team. do you have any experience in ___?” if you ask someone a question directly, chances are they’ll answer. even if they answer with a, “i’m sorry, but i don’t have an answer for you,” it’s still a step in the right direction. with some follow up discussion, you can begin to elicit active participation from users. but you also have to remember that there are other kinds of participation, too.

you can passively participate as well. there are plenty of people who sign up for twitter or subscribe to blogs and never post or comment, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not there paying attention. passive users can also derive value from the conversations which unfold and the information that’s shared.

adoption, however, is far more difficult to achieve. the definition of “adopt” is to take by choice into a relationship. people can participate here and there, or they can participate by doing nothing but listening. for true adoption, though, a user must not just use the system or be part of the discussion — they have to push to better the system and take the discussion to more people. true adoption happens when people take ownership of what’s going on. it’s something that my colleague steve talks about all the time. when you adopt something, you choose to make it your own.

i think participation is the catalyst for self-efficacy, organizational trust, andperceivedimprovement potential — not the other way around. self-efficacy, organizational trust, and perceived improvement potential then help to lead to adoption.

that’s where i think the difference is between participation and adoption. they’re notinterchangeable;the one actually lays the foundation for the other.