Enterprise social networks (ESN) first started to gain currency in the late noughties. In 2010, Gartner, the analyst, predicted that “by 2014, social networking services will replace e-mail as the primary vehicle for interpersonal communications for 20 percent of business users.” More recently, McKinsey, another analyst found that almost 70% of corporates have enterprise social networks in place.
These statistics all sound very positive, yet as the McKinsey research also reveals, 20% of organisations account for more than half of all ESN usage. The challenge with enterprise social networks is that while they can encourage collaboration, sharing, improved communication and more in theory, all too often they are rarely used by more than a handful of employees.
Why do ESNs encounter this problem, and how can you become one of the companies who make a big success of their enterprise social networks?
Enterprise social networks provide a secure platform where employees can form communities, share documents and collaborate. They include features that allow individuals to send one another private messages, as well as public feeds where users can make posts visible to everyone in the organisation or a group. These posts can be shared, ‘liked’, commented on and rated. Like popular consumer social networks, individual users typically build their own profile with a picture, lists of skills, experience and interests.
Common ESN use cases:
- Introducing new staff members and letting them ask questions while getting to know colleagues
- Sharing company communications and gauging reaction
- ‘Crowdsourcing’ ideas or responses to proposals
- Collaborating on projects, with live feedback
- More ‘natural’ communication – an alternative to the problem of lengthy email chains
ESNs are less of a tool for doing work and more of an infrastructure to support staff collaboration. They are most often used in companies with desk-based staff, but with the growth of mobile devices, they have a lot of potential in work environments as diverse as supermarkets, supply chain or farms.
Real success with an ESN implies a new form of working in the organisation. Staff will be asked to communicate differently (using a ‘newsfeed’ instead of email), collaborate differently (work in parallel on documents, rather than checking out work to use it privately) and more generally approaching work in a different way. For it to be successful, staff will need to see the value of logging into the ESN daily and gain confidence by using it. And this depends on the ‘network effect’ – the more that people use something, the more useful it becomes.
And it is here that many companies have trouble with enterprise social networks. Simply providing users with a profile and telling them to fill it out and get working will have little impact. Until there are enough people using the ESN—the network effect—few employees will choose to log in.
The secret of success
So, how do you create this ‘network effect’ among employees? Facebook is often held up as an example of ‘build it and they will come’. In fact, Facebook took several years to become popular, and its success as a social network emerged as much from making itself seem appealing as it did from any of its actual features. To begin with, Facebook was only accessible to students at elite American colleges, followed later by all colleges. This was critical for many reasons, but especially because the excitement garnered by its apparent exclusivity meant everyone wanted to find out what it was about.
For success with an enterprise social network in your organisation, the tools and features of the platform are only relatively important (most ESNs carry similar features). Instead, businesses that are successful with ESNs are those that can create the excitement and conditions that will encourage continued usage:
- Assign a project manager who has ultimate responsibility for the project’s success
- Introduce the ESN to a limited number of employees in a team and offer training and incentives
- Ensure all senior level execs have a profile and are actively using it and sharing exciting business information
- Communicate news about the ESN as a trial to the whole business and update all colleagues about its progress in order to create curiosity
- Gradually roll the ESN out to different departments
- Finally, after a few months and once enough curiosity has been created, deploy the ESN business-wide
- Keep interest going in the early stages with competitions, crowd-sourcing and regular communications from the CEO
ESNs have been growing in popularity in recent years. However, while many businesses have some form of social capability in place, many struggle to reach that critical mass. By introducing enterprise social networks in a more sophisticated way, you increase your chances of changing how the company works, boosting collaboration and facilitating improved communication.
Ready to try out an ESN today? Download your free trial of Social Squared, which integrates directly with Microsoft SharePoint.