Do enterprise social networks matter?

glyph-chat-150Massive global online social networks have enabled consumers to disrupt markets and even helped citizens to disrupt governments. But what about social networks within business? Is there potential to improve the workplace?


 

The quick answer would be Yes! But the messy reality of most workplaces mean the outcome is not quite so clear.

Here are some real-world observations, based on organisations who have piloted and/or rolled out enterprise social networking tools over the past 2 years for internal purposes:

  • The most active uses have all shared a similar trait: connecting a distributed peer group focused on R&D-style activities. People who talk the same language (i.e. domain-specific) and share the same interests but are geographically dispersed.
  • The weakest use has been when it is deployed as a generic organisation-wide tool for everyone to start communicating online. There may be an initial flare of activity but usage tends to drop-off within 6 months.
  • The organisations who experience the most demonstrable benefits are in intellectually competitive markets, particularly science, technology and engineering, where specialist expertise is highly sought and valued but where there is openness to expanding knowledge.
  • Most senior managers are surprised at how well enterprise social networking tools are embraced when people are given the opportunity to participate.
  • Most successful deployments have at least one role dedicated to encouraging and moderating participation. May be a permanent role, can also be an ‘on rotation’ responsibility.

Here are some factors to consider before deploying enterprise social network tools:

  • What’s the intended outcome – Is it to strengthen relationships? Uncover hidden pockets of knowledge? Mine skills for collective intelligence? Involve people in decisions? Speed up access to expertise? Improve communications?
  • Are the dependencies in place – Will people have time to participate? Will they care (priorities)? Will their contributions be acknowledged, used, ignored or dismissed? How will conflicts be resolved?
  • What’s the overall culture of the organisation like – Is gossip encouraged or frowned upon?
  • Don’t mix up collaborative working with social networks. Different audiences, different activities. But one can help the other to scale…
  • Don’t get too hooked up on the technology choice – the value is in the conversation.
  • Consider training to improve communication skills for key roles.

And if there’s one tip above all others for getting started, try focusing on a specific area of the organisation rather than thinking ‘we are going social’. Can an enterprise social network create the digital equivalent of the water cooler or coffee area for a peer group that is otherwise unable to chat on a regular or ad-hoc basis?