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Social Networks: Catalysts for the Borderless Enterprise

Few would argue that social media and social networking are rapidly and radically transforming our social culture, behavioral norms, and expectations of interpersonal interaction.  Used in a business context, they are also changing the way individual professionals engage, share, and collaborate with each other.  But they are also changing the way companies think, work, and look.  I believe this evolution and adaptation will increasingly lead to what I’ll call a “borderless enterprise.”


What is a “Borderless Enterprise”? 

Envision a company or other organization that operates by a model where customers, suppliers, partners, media, and analysts (its “ecosystem”) engage on a daily, if not hourly or constant, basis – where the lines and distinctions between these distinct roles will blur, dissipate, and flex – and where the rigid walls and other obstacles fall away or become highly porous, allowing more open and unrestricted access, engagement, and interaction.

The tools of social media – whether they are full-length blogs, micro-blogs (like Twitter), wikis, virtual events, photo-sharing (think flickr), code-sharing, video-sharing (YouTube or Vimeo), reviews and ratings, or discussion forum posts – have essentially transformed one-way broadcast monologues into widespread, viral, social dialogues. I see these social media tools as accelerants – if not initial causes or catalysts – of this transformation. 

Engaged and Networked Community Members Contribute to the Evolution to Borderless

As these social media platforms have developed and practices have evolved, they have emerged as vibrant platforms and channels within and through which community members – members of companies’ ecosystems – can advance their own knowledge, find and share solutions, swap best practices, grow their careers, and assist peers – without constant centralized management, rigid processes, and sometimes without any active participation by the sponsoring company.  Think how the Business Process Expert (BPX), SAP Developer Network (SDN), University Alliances, and BusinessObjects communities perform these functions for SAP and its ecosystem members… the impact is considerable, and might even be considered astounding if only we could capture and measure it all.

That’s because social media platforms and programs create unprecedented reach, allowing members to connect with peers from across a diverse global audience.  Social networks provide accessibility, giving members “anytime, anywhere” access to information.  Social networking relies on the self-motivated exchange of value – where individual members decide for themselves when, how, and with whom they will engage and interact – so quality and value rise to the top, multiply, and live on.  And social networks allow just-in-time responses, often within minutes, so that community members no longer wait days, or even hours, for answers to their pressing questions. From all of this, host companies like SAP react and respond, a “borderless enterprise” starts to emerge, it evolves with informal real-world testing, takes shape when success patterns gel and clarify, and then borderlessness rises as a preferred mode of operation. 

Characteristics of a Borderless Enterprise

Social media and social networks are driving business transformation and engendering a true borderless enterprise, which I believe has at least four key attributes:

Agility: This means the ability of a business or other enterprise (think government agency, not-for-profit, NGO…) to respond rapidly and efficiently to changes in its ecosystem or market. This business agility and responsiveness are evident when goods and services adapt to meet shifting customer demands, when companies adjust relatively easily to changing market conditions including both negative disruptions or promising opportunities, and when organizations take full advantage of new marketplace realities even when those realities are still emerging and not yet broadly or clearly evident.

Collaboration: In a borderless enterprise, members of the organization and its extended ecosystem (partners, suppliers, customers…) can connect and collaborate on short-term day-to-day transactional solutions and workarounds, business-process issues or improvements or innovations, and higher-level longer-term strategic projects.  Participants form, build, and nurture relationships with each other and sometimes with the sponsoring enterprise and its ecosystem both online and offline – for example at events like SAP TechEd and SAP Tech Tour which enable member collaboration in a face-to-face setting in physical space where community members cement their ongoing online relationships. Most importantly, they help each other with a “pay it forward” attitude and approach, see the benefits of broad community success, and participate in active sharing in order to create a rising tide that lifts all boats – including their own.

Co-Innovation: Customers and the sponsoring company, plus its partners and suppliers, engage in different phases of product (or service, or whole solution) innovation – inbound product design, feature and functionality prioritization, product development, testing, distribution, and even go-to-market and post-implementation adoption and usage activities. Co-innovation like this can lead to higher customer satisfaction, since customers have a direct hand in the final outcome of products and services which presumably then do a better job of meeting their needs and those of the larger market … and that resulting customer success helps the sponsoring enterprise and its partners in their business goals and endeavors.   

Organic: Rather than behaving according to narrow and restrictive “mechanical” processes or rigid practices, rules, and ideas, a borderless enterprise can respond more organically, the way our biological environment does, remaining flexible, fluid, and open to change.  In such a model, unusual individual customer needs and broader market changes don’t break fragile / brittle existing processes, but instead cause them to flex and re-form.  The company can be more responsive to change, and eventually it doesn’t just bend to new requirements, but builds and grows organically as a result of interacting with its environment rather than according to some top-down longer-term centralized model.   

SAP Communities are a Testing Ground for the “Borderless” Concept

I would submit that we’re already experimenting with the earliest stages of a “borderless enterprise” in some departments and corners of SAP, gaining traction with certain early adopters who believe in and support the vision, and I think we’re already seeing the emergence of some “borderless” attributes taking root in parts of the company’s operations, policies, practices, and priorities. As in every company though, it’s not universal, it’s not easy, and we have a long way to go before we can claim to be at an advanced stage of borderlessness.  But fundamental and deep change like this takes time, trial-and-error, and evolution bolstered by evidence of positive benefit.    

An example of early progress?  Within the SAP Community Network (SCN), members – primarily SAP customers, partners, and consultants – use a range of social media tools to engage with one another and to help shape SAP’s future direction.  They help us identify priorities and to define policies at SAP. They interact with product managers.  And that highly networked level of interaction, in turn, benefits members looking to get the most from their SAP experience via the community.

Case in point: It was only last year at SAP TechEd 2008 in Berlin that SAP Mentors met with several SAP executives (notably Herve Coutourier), asking for the ability to share code, and also to gain access to a more open SAP NetWeaver license agreement. So, at this year’s SAP TechEd, we announced that we’re On SDN Code Exchange, Open Source and Free Software to enable the sharing of code for solutions / add-ons / extensions / tools by individual community members, and we’re offering perpetual developer licenses to supersede the long-established temporary developer licenses that expire after 90 days. Important to note is that some of our most-active and most-respected community members represented the larger community in making a series of requests, that SAP listened and was willing to be directed by this outside feedback, and that those community members affected SAP’s offerings and policies. 

At this year’s SAP TechEd 2009 just a few weeks ago, the Process Design Slam produced compelling content around business process modeling (BPM) methodologies. This Process Design Slam, in a virtual community collaboration applying BPM design and implementation tools and methodologies to solve a particular business challenge, sought and succeeded to prove that geographically dispersed collaboration teams could create an “agile” solution with the right resources.  That work might well lead to different behaviors by SAP in the year ahead, by the various companies of the participants, or by those participating individuals themselves, and by anyone else who watched or read about the exercise.  I would put that in the “borderless” category as it is grassroots (versus top-down) community-led change with the potential for outside-in and cross-organizational influence.

And the above examples are just a smattering of the full set of actions SAP has taken recently that demonstrate being more porous, more open, more fluid … more borderless.  

The “Borderless” Model Can Benefit Other Companies Just As It Brings Value to SAP

Creating, increasing, or accelerating business value will be the catalyst for companies to become more borderless – whether via social media or other mechanisms.  Just read the SCN blogs or wikis, watch the videos, listen to presenters at SAP TechEd, and it’s clear that SAP Community Network (SCN) members have undoubtedly contributed to each other’s success, to the success of their employers and member companies, to the SAP community and SAP ecosystem more broadly, and – if you believe that successful, satisfied, loyal, and passionate customers are any indication – to the success of SAP, as well.  

A study published earlier this year by Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group, in conjunction with Wetpaint, noted how the 100 most valuable brands – as identified by the 2008 BusinessWeek/Interbrand Best Global Brands ranking – engaged in different online social media channels. SAP ranked in the top ten most-engaged global brands online and was categorized as a “social media maven” based not only its community members’ breadth of engagement across social media channels, but also on the depth of their (your!) engagement.  In other words, for example, SCN members replied frequently to comments made on blog posts or discussion forum threads, rather than settling for static discussions.  And SAP enabled and engaged and responded very actively as well.  Important in this study was Charlene’s finding of a correlation and subsequent conclusion that the most-active companies on the web are also the most successful financially. 

Meanwhile, Jon Reed, a blogger/analyst, founder of, and an SAP Mentor, notes: “I am struck by how much SAP has been transformed by the SAP Community Network. The SAP community today is a colorful blend of high ideals, social networking innovation, and the messy interpersonal dynamics that make community so challenging. Leveraged properly, I believe it can be SAP’s greatest source of competitive advantage.”  Another business benefit of borderlessness even beyond the pure financials: competitive advantage. 


This competitive advantage is a direct result of the impressive participation from our most active SCN members. This year, over 3,000 members are Top Contributors with more than 250 points in 2009 alone. In addition, about 600 How Grateful We Are For All Our ‘M’s, both from within and outside SAP (meaning: from our customers and partners), oversee forums and wikis. Over 400 contributors with “publish” rights make sure that the community gets fresh, updated content across the various community content sharing platforms (forums, wikis, blogs, topic-oriented web pages…).  Another 5000 community members – two-thirds of them not SAP employees – can blog in SCN to a regular audience of about 1M unique readers per month.  Many of our members write in-depth articles, pull others into the discussion, set examples for participation, and pave the path for new discussions.  This giving-up of control by SAP, and enabling and supporting others to play an active and direct role, is yet another example of becoming borderless – with obvious benefits to SAP and to its customers and ecosystem members of efficiency, speed, depth and range of available / shared expertise, and much else.

The Journey Continues

My experience is that the evolution and transformation to becoming borderless is a multi-year journey that cuts across every department of entire companies.  My sense is that we’ve only just begun – not only within SAP and its ecosystem, but also more broadly in the larger global marketplace.  I’m encouraged by how far we’ve come – generally along a progression much like the one we envisioned a few years ago.  But I expect that we all have a long journey ahead until the de facto operating model for 21st century companies is the borderless enterprise.   

Your Thoughts? 

I’m interested in whether you agree with this concept of borderlessness, what you’ve experienced or observed in your own company and ecosystem, and how changes towards a more porous, open, collaborative enterprise engagement model are manifesting themselves in new policies, practices, and behaviors. 

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      Author's profile photo Dagfinn Parnas
      Dagfinn Parnas
      Thank you Mark for taking the time to write down your insights on the borderless enterprise.

      Alot of the same topics applies to the SAP TechEd Live interview I had on "How Lean, Agile and Scrum will shape your company of the future"
      How Lean, Agile and Scrum will shape your company of the future

      I've just assisted a business support function (with no IT element at all) in Norway to apply agile principles such as daily stand-ups and scrum boards. I am astounded by how far they come in a few weeks and the feedback from the team members is extremely positive.

      Would love to continue this conversation at SAP Influencer summit.


      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Thank you, Dagfinn.  I agree that there are lean-and-agile attributes that apply here as well.    What I think we're seeing is a larger, broader  transformation of business behavior, practices, emphasis... thus my hesitation to claim that social media and social networking are the catalysts.  In the chicken-or-egg question, I  think that social networks are an enabler and accelerant, and provide a way to achieve or execute or respond to this transformation, but I suspect that the transformation is broader and is probably caused by customer/market shifts.  I appreciate your insights and would enjoy talking about this more at the Influencer Summit in Boston in a couple of weeks. 

      Mark Yolton

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Hi all: I'm flattered to have the above blog quoted and referenced in a positive way in Michael Krigsman's post in "ZDnet" today.  Michael is a highly respected blogger, columnist, a seasoned enterprise software industry observer and influencer, and CEO of a consulting company.  You can find his article/blog here:

      Mark Yolton

      Author's profile photo Bill Wood
      Bill Wood
      Interesting, I worked on implementing this concept in Grant Thornton and then later in Hitachi consulting over 10 years ago.

      A few years back I wrote this piece on how properly implemented social collaboration tools within the enterprise can dramatically change the organization.

      SAP, ERP III, SOA — Learning Organizations through Social Media Collaboration

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Mark, great post, and ofcourse i agree with your comments.  The one thing that i think we do forget sometimes is the change management necessary within the enterprise to take advantage of the information and data available as a result of the "borderless enterprise".

      It is important in some cases to rethink and adjust the enterperise process other wise the benefits may just "stop at the border".

      Good job. Zia.

      Author's profile photo Otto Gold
      Otto Gold
      I like to talk about these innovation things, because it help people think about tham as a standard. When a thing is considered a standard it starts producing the value. I would love to hear a voice of a man who things this is a standard or will be in a year or two.
      What I have learnt here on SDN is that the friendship and partnership are borderless, what is a nice thing. I have friend doing SAP from Pakistan to Texas, from Germany to Russia. But when it comes to business... People start learning you don´t have to shake a hand with a man to work with him (read: earn money with him!!). But when a friend from the mentioned Pakistan asked me if he can just fly to my country and start doing the SAP consultancy and if he would not be limited by any law or the people feelings, I was not able to give him any answer. Maybe I should start blogging about this becasue there is so much buzz about all this processes and borderless things and SOA and... all that... things... and very little value comes out of it, at least when we don´t talk about the technology only and count some people feelings, methodologies, laws and all other things that build our world.
      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Interesting read.  So true.  I am a Lean Manufacturing (TPS-Toyota Production System) professional and the Borderles concept has been the framework of lean manufacturing & Elimninating Waste.  Value Stream mapping certainly advocates elimation of non-value added processes.
      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member
      Thank you, Deborah, for your comment. I'm glad to see that this has relevance to your real world experience thru your work on a regular basis.