What Ancient Rome knew about innovation that modern companies could learn.

Roman Forum In Rome 62188619 proThe ancient city of Rome converted a prime swath of centrally located land from a marketplace into an area that had tremendous significance to its citizens. It was a place where people gathered and interacted, where discussions, debates, meetings, and other activities took place. This place was called the Foro Romano, or Roman Forum.

Forums were critically important to societies of the time — some even date back to independent villages in the prehistoric period. Clearly, the human need for community and social interaction seems baked into our DNA. But there were more reasons for a forum than simply to have a place to people-watch and pontificate about the superiority of Roman theater to the Greek’s.

Where’s the party, citizen?

By having one central place where everyone could congregate, the people of Rome could easily learn what was happening in their fellow citizens’ lives, their immediate vicinity, and the world. This frequent and easy exchange of information was critical for the community’s well-being. Inside the forum, people could share news from other places, discuss community issues, or suddenly come up with the freaking aqueduct — essentially, the Forum was the social network of its time.

Today, this same kind of communal access and interaction has moved online. Early online attempts at an public sphere — not coincidentally called “forums” themselves — gained some level of popularity, yet weren’t seamless replacements for being there. It took today’s more engaging social networks to most closely approximate the Roman forum online. Facebook and Twitter, for example, now give people more access to their family, friends, and neighbors than even the Roman Forum did.

Today, the water-cooler won’t cut it.

But what about businesses? Aside from the 1950s water-cooler, businesses typically lack any sort of “Roman Forum replacement” — that is, there’s no place where employees can easily go to interact and share ideas as a group. And that’s too bad, because social interaction can lead to radical new ideas (see Roman Innovations).

Sadly, the closest mass-communication tool businesses have is email, and, frankly, email was never meant to be used the way most businesses use it. Email was certainly a good first attempt at speeding up business communications (for short text-based messages, it was a quantum leap over the messenger pigeon, telegraph, Pony Express, and fax machine). But while having a business conversation over email can be done, it’s inefficient, time-consuming, and not particularly engaging.

Employees using corporate email are potentially connected to hundreds or even thousands of colleagues, and yet no one knows any more information than what’s contained in the emails others send specifically to them. In other words, every email is a static piece of isolated knowledge that’s of no value to anyone except the few people it’s actually addressed to. It’s not conveying its information about the business to anyone else who could benefit from it.

Worse, by siloing conversations and blocking those with insight into a topic — but who weren’t CC’d — from helping out with new ideas or solutions, email actually prevents innovation. For example, email hinders newly hired employees from seeing conversations around a subject that happened even days before they came on-board. And email discourages serendipity, the cornerstone of many great advances in science, medicine, and technology. It’s a one-to-one communication tool that has high costs for both parties involved and your business. Email is, in a word, anti-social.

Social networks are the new Roman Forum.

The same way the Roman Forum and online social networks gave people a place to share news and ideas, the Enterprise Social Network gives employees one central place to keep up with what colleagues are doing and what’s going on with the business itself. An ESN can be transformative for a company because the more news and information you have circulating around, the more likely your people are to act on that information in ways that can have serious benefits for the company.

Learn how the leading Enterprise Social Network, tibbr, can open the channels of communication and collaboration in your company, increasing awareness, knowledge sharing, and innovation. Get a free trial of tibbr now.