Systems of Engagement: Technology for Social Organizations

by cv harquail on April 13, 2011

“Systems of engagement.”

Isn’t that an evocative term?

The minute I read it, I knew that the term “systems of engagement” captured something important–but what? I searched the web, I even consulted Quora, but I found no definition of “systems of engagement” that incorporates all that the term evokes for me. So at the end of this post, I’ll propose a definition.

But first let me tell you why the concept of “systems of engagement” is useful.

The term “systems of engagement” evokes complexity, dynamism, a sense of purpose, and a set of values about stakeholder interaction.

As a term:

  • “Systems of engagement” includes any kind of tool or medium that focuses on engaging any stakeholder–internal or external.
  • “Systems of engagement” encompasses all forms of “social media”, but they aren’t limited to the activity of the organization connecting outward to external stakeholders.
  • “Systems of engagement” highlights the complex, recursive, dynamic nature of the tools and the processes that they support. Explicitly, the term takes us away from any notion of broadcasting.
  • “Systems of engagementfocuses on the goal, the reason for being, behind these tools & processes: Engagement. These tools are built and used explicitly to facilitate people getting involved in the interpersonal, communicative and creative elements of the work that they do.

“Systems of engagement” invokes a perspective on technology that captures how we need to think differently about technology, when we want to use this technology in a social organization.

“Systems of engagement” is a term that will –I hope– be used to describe all manner of interactive, digital, communication oriented systems, used by organizations, to support engagement among stakeholders.

Where did the term “Systems of Engagement” come from?

201104131247.jpgGeoffrey Moore coined the term “systems of engagement” (though I cannot find a citation) and contrasted them to “systems of record”. Moore offers a simple definition of systems of engagement, calling them

“social business systems designed to dramatically improve the productivity of middle tier knowledge workers. … (they) enhance the ability of knowledge workers to quickly cooperate with each other in order to improve operating flexibility and customer engagement.”

That definition is a good start, but it really doesn’t embrace all that the term implies, and all that the actual systems mean to an organization.

The term popped into my awareness with the Jan 2011 AIIM report “Systems of Engagement and the Future of Enterprise IT”. It has been discussed somewhat by process management specialist Jacob Ukelson and by CRM/eCommerce specialist Richard Hughes, both of whom bring an IT/Content management perspective to it. Michel Bauwens has created a Wikipedia page for the term. And, JP Rangaswami has elaborated on the concept of Systems of Engagement, especially drawing in some history of the evolution of these sorts of social systems.

But no one, as yet, has directly addressed the organizational, cultural, and leadership issues related to systems of engagement. (Richard Veryard, I’m with you in this concern.)

Consider just this one direction:

When we think about systems of engagement, we are triggered to think about engagement as a concept, and as a process, as it has been understood and facilitated by organization development and change agents since before the dawn of the human relations movement.

We are triggered to remember, for example, that engagement requires a commitment to four organizational principles:

  1. widening the circle of involvement
  2. connecting people to each other, to ideas, and to emotions
  3. creating communities of action
  4. embracing democracy

When we think about these underlying principles of engagement, and consider how they need to be built into digital tools to support stakeholder interaction, we explicitly create the bridge from a tech focus (like Enterprise 2.0) to a social focus on individual and organizational flourishing (e.g., social organization, wirearchy).

Let’s Co-Opt the Term “Systems of Engagement”

201104131248.jpgI want to co-opt this term, popularize it, and promote it in conversations about social media, social business, and social organizations.

“Systems of engagement” reminds us that we need to step beyond customer relationship management– we need to include more than just customers, and to focus on processes in addition to “management”. Even when we talk about constituent relationship management, we’re still talking about a view where the organization controls the medium and controls the engagement for its own purposes–not necessarily for maximizing the value that’s exchanged between and among stakeholders.

When we think of systems of engagement, not just ‘social media inside organizations’, we invite ourselves to think differently, more expansively, and more creatively about what we need to do to support the engagement of all organizational stakeholders.

The term suggests, maybe even reminds us, that these tools are attached to values, norms, and a worldview about users, managers, leaders, and those whom these systems will serve.

As a term, “systems of engagement” solves a problem for us.

The term creates room for our imagination, for us to create additional systems that support and facilitate stakeholder engagement. It also triggers us to think about the organizational context that will support, and use these systems.

Old Wall, New Coat of Paint?

201104131251.jpgCraig Rhinehart, an enterprise content specialist, believes that “systems of engagement” is really just a clever label for systems we have been using all along, a “proven idea with a fresh coat of paint”.

He’s right, I think, in recognizing that tools such as email and instant messaging were used to facilitate engagement long before “social media” etc. were created. It is a proven idea that engagement needs tech system support.

But we haven’t yet fully explored and explained how systems of engagement are attached to values, norms, and a worldview about users, managers, leaders, and those whom these systems will serve. There is still a lot we can do to understand how a class of systems, engagement systems, can be fit in next to old(er) paradigms of digital technology, and older paradigms of leadership and organizations.

So here’s what I propose:

If the term “systems of engagement” feels useful to you, let’s hear how. Let’s just co-opt the term, and work together to define it. Where do you want to start?

[ Note: I use social organization instead of social business to include nonprofits and other organizational forms as well as businesses.] More links to follow but I’m out of time for now…

images: Complex Beauty – Liatris …from 1Sock The Complex Plane from Garrett Crawford Williamsville Water Mill Complex from johncpiercy


John Mancini April 13, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Thanks for the coverage of our work re Systems of Engagement.

You readers might be interested that we followed up the original Moore white paper ( with a roadmap guide for organizations thinking about a more social foundation ( The roadmap is Creative Commons, and we’ve also set up a wiki to start down the path of versions 2, 3, 4 and beyond.

cv harquail April 13, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Hi John M.–

So exciting to see that you are already moving forward with these ideas, and with the challenge of integrating systems of engagement with systems of record.

Although a few of you all in the conversation so far have mentioned issues like leadership, ownership, privacy, and control as important dimensions on which SOR and SOE are different, this currently seems at a surface level– like we know it matters but haven’t yet unpacked the details. For example, on the road map the issue of ‘governance’ is spelled out– but what are the values underlying the choice of that word over others…? That will be interesting to consider.

Two other questions pop up for me, too, as I look at the roadmap. The first one is “where is culture”? And the second one is– Is AIIM planning to ‘brand’ itself or its products with the term Systems of Engagement, or are imagining that it will stay ‘free’ to evolve in definition & meaning as the community uses it?

Thanks so much for sharing your next steps– I look forward to staying connected as your ideas unfold. cvh

John Brantley Hooks, IV of The WWRG Network April 13, 2011 at 5:06 pm

CV – once again you have hit the core of truth. Yes, technology labels change but the underlying process of engagement does not. CRM, ERM, SFA and now SM- the list goes on. We are in development with a platform that enables all four organizational elements you mention – plus the underlying human need to be part of a “movement” with social purpose. The first test of our technology will bear fruit as the Women’s Empowerment movement and the balance of wealth controlled by women come into alignment. The traditional power base of men – money – is now shifting to women faster than ever before. Stay tuned!

cv harquail April 13, 2011 at 10:30 pm

Hi John-

You know that if you combine ‘systems of engagement’, social change, and the advancement of women/social justice in one tool, I’ll die and go to change-agent heaven.

Seriously, though, I appreciate you raising the issue of purpose! Engagement is never simply for the sake of engagement… it’s too often to benefit just the business (and in some non-profits, just the constituents). What we want to support is engagement in shared purpose– that’s important clarity for me/us to add when we talk about these ideas. thanks so much- cv

jon April 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Sounds like a good idea to me! From a startup perspective, If We Ran the World is a great example of a system of engagement, and I’ve been thinking about my nascent startup that way as well in all the senses you discuss. Totally agree that there’s a lot to discuss about “how systems of engagement are attached to values, norms, and a worldview about users, managers, leaders, and those whom these systems will serve.” How to make progress exploring?

cv harquail April 13, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Hi jon-

How did I overlook IWRTW, and your project! These both are great examples of ‘social media’ platforms deliberately built on the premise of supporting “engagement+purpose”. It’s interesting that both you and John B. would both be making this connection in your products. …

One thing I struggled with as I was writing out this post is the recognition that many (social media) platform/tool makers say that they are about engagement, and mention certain values as being important… so it’s not that they are unaware of what kinds of values it takes to get authentic engagement (that is also not exploitative). At the same time, though, there are still a lot of social media tools/platforms that are very ‘values 1.0’. I am encouraged (entranced, even) by the number of social+tech entrepreneurs, and I can’t wait to see more examples of tools with a social justice foundation.

I’m looking forward to the chance to write about your project! cv

JB April 14, 2011 at 10:04 am

We’re impressed with the work AIIM is doing to advance the industry along ‘system of engagement’. As CEO of one of the ‘social organization’ leaders and pioneers, it’s v. informative to participate in and listen to these dialogues joining our roots to our future… Thanks for the blog post.

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