The Unfulfilled Promise of Enterprise Social Networking

The success of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter has inevitably caused many companies to consider how similar techniques and technologies can be applied to internal business communication.  Social networks promise a solution to many of email’s failings, particularly in the areas of group discussions and capturing collective knowledge. It’s fairly obvious that a conversation between 5 people is going to be more efficient as a discussion in a social network than as a long series of emails copied to all participants. The result will be a single, definitive view of the discussion available to all participants and easily discoverable by other network members who are entitled to see it.

The benefits of social networks inside an organisation were documented extensively in a July 2012 report from McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) entitled The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies. MGI found that social technology can improve the productivity of knowledge workers by 20-25% by reducing the time spent reading and answering e-mail, searching and gathering information, and communicating internally.

Yet many organisations are yet to deploy any serious social project within the company, leaving the promise of enterprise largely unfulfilled. There are many reasons for this, and if we are to succeed in improving business communication, we need to understand these reasons.

Firstly, enterprise social networks have had something of lack of clarity of identity, with the term “social business” being used to refer to both external use of social (such as engaging with customers on Facebook) and internal use for employee collaboration. This confusion has led to some quite frankly implausible conclusions, such as a recent survey that claims 74% of companies use Facebook for enterprise collaboration. I’m sure 74% of companies (more, in fact) use Facebook for business purposes, but I am equally sure that very, very few of them use it for what could be described as “enterprise collaboration”.

This lack of clarity about how social technology is being applied leads to confusion and often to hostility to the idea from management. Lazy, inaccurate terms like “it’s like Facebook for business” or “Twitter for business”,  only perpetuate this problem, conjuring up visions of sharing photos of their children and pets and trading trivialities. The common “virtual water cooler” metaphor is equally unhelpful, because it suggests that social networking is for the gaps between real work, rather than for real work itself.

It is increasingly clear that for social networking initiatives inside an organisation to succeed, they need to support real work. They need to help employees become more productive at the tasks they were already performing, rather than becoming yet another communication channel to keep up with.

Applying social networking to real business processes is something that needs to be planned and deployed with management approval. This dispels another social business myth, that employee social networks can be created from the ground-up by a group of enthusiastic employees without management involvement. This approach has led to successful deployment sometimes, but more often than not such initiatives fizzle out after the initial enthusiasm wears off and fail to establish their relevance to business objectives. Charlene Li of Altimeter Group in her February 2012 report Making The Business Case For Enterprise Social Networks finds that “the reality of everyday work pushed ESN use to the side, causing people to pull away from their ESN activities and return back to their original work and communication patterns”.

Read more: The Unfulfilled Promise of Enterprise Social Networking 

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