Boyd Neil of Hill & Knowlton has written a very kind and thought-provoking post in response to the launch of Social Signal. Boyd’s observation is that corporate communicators have a lot to learn from social movements and community activists about how to use the Internet as a tool for bottom-up community engagement and marketing campaigns.

It’s an interesting twist because I’m used to coporate communications being held up as a model and example for nonprofit people — particularly online, since corporate web sites often seem to be a few steps ahead of their nonprofit counterparts (at least aesthetically). While I’ve grown increasingly convinced of the potential of decentralized online collaboration as an engine of social change, it hadn’t occurred to me that part of its impact lies in shifting the balance of power between the private and nonprofit worlds.

For all sorts of historical, cultural, and perhaps even structural reasons, civil society organizations may be just that much ahead of private (and I suspect also government) organizations in their ability to adopt, adapt and exploit participatory, collaborative models. If that’s the model that is most effective — and most available — in the era of online communications, then the shift towards online community may actually put community organizations in a newly powerful position.

Of course the other possible — and equally hopeful — scenario is that private sector organizations will learn to adopt and adapt participatory models for their own benefit. I say, bring it on! All my experience and observation of community collaboration suggests that the structures and processes of collaborative work and decision-making have a transformative impact on organizational culture and mission. Democratizing corporations — by giving employees, customers and the broader community a greater role and stake in their decisions — could have an even larger social impact than democratizing government and civil society groups.

And there are more opportunities than ever for corporations to immerse themselves in the experiences and innovations of web-savvy, collaboration-driven community organizations. Dare I suggest that participating in Net2 could be a great place to start?