What We Know About Making Enterprise Social Networks Successful Today

It’s a little hard to believe that it’s been over ten years now since the first early enterprise social networks (ESN) emerged on the market to make their initial forays into our organizations. They showed us then — and I believe even more now today — the bright new possibilities for how we might work together in more innovative and effective ways by becoming fundamentally better connected organizations.

We’ve certainly learned a great deal along the way through thousands of ESN deployments around the world since that time. I have tracked or been involved in a good many of these types of efforts over the years, and so I thought I’d revisit what I believe that we’ve learned so far from the more successful efforts. Sharing this knowledge is vital now, as I still see many practitioners starting almost from scratch. That’s because there is still no single source of knowledge on what works best when it comes to being successful in crafting a next-generation digital workplace with an ESN.

Note: We do have a useful body of industry knowledge now, but it’s currently spread out and must be put together to create a fully integrated picture. The three sources I that think are the most valuable currently are a) the Community Roundtable‘s annual State of the Community Management report, the latest edition of which I explored on ZDNet a little while back, b) Jane McConnell’s excellent Organization in the Digital Age report, and lastly, c) Vanessa Dimauro’s various work at Leader Networks, such as her new Business Impact of Communities report.

Making an Enterprise Social Network Thrive

Looking in the ESN Mirror: Far Too Much Attention on the Tools

Early makers of enterprise social networks such as Jive, Newsgator, and Socialtext blazed the trail initially, making it possible for workers to engage in truly open and self-organizing collaboration by adapting the social networking model that had worked so well in the consumer world to the enterprise. In particular, these early offerings were based on the early successes of consumer social media and social networking, namely services like Facebook and MySpace, as well highly successful online communities for business like the SAP Community Network. While wikis and blogs were the first genuine contemporary social software used in businesses (groupware, and arguably e-mail were actually the very first social tools), it was the social networking model that ultimately became the leading one.

Eventually, the hard knocks of marketplace competition ultimately led to the domination of the top part of the industry by a few players that executed well: IBM (with Connections and a host of associated platforms), Microsoft (with Yammer, Sharepoint, and now Groups, and probably Teams as well), Salesforce (with Chatter/Community Cloud), and finally Jive as the only truly dedicated enterprise player still standing from the inception of the industry.

But as useful as these platforms were and are in helping enable the right changes in digital workplace mindset and behavior, it was never the technology that was the hardest part. In fact, one of the clearest lessons from the first decade of the rise of the ESN was that virtually all of the major challenges with ESN success are about people, not technology. Making enterprise social networks thrive by fostering stronger, richer connections across organization silos while spurring widespread knowledge sharing and co-creation is an activity that is almost entirely made successful by how you situate the tools among the people involved, what skills you develop amongst them, and the type of goals, encouragement, support, and leadership you establish.

Thus, in the realm of digital collaboration, people come first and technology is second. In fact, I’ve often argued that organizations can actually become effective social businesses without any additional technology at all, like W.L. Gore (10,000 employees, $3.2B revenue) with its famously flat, open and self-organizing culture which was a social businesses long before the technology arrived. (They have since adopted the ESNs as one of their core tools.)

A Signature Lesson: People Must Change with the Tech, So Guide Them

I’d even go as far as to say this (to borrow a concept from the Internet of Things): The enterprise social network actually creates a side-by-side virtual “twin” of your organization, one that is more natural, organic, collaborative, scalable, and self-organizing. The digital twin represented by your ESN must therefore be nurtured in the same way as your business is (because it is the business too.)

Just like you’d never let your organization operate without a well-articulated vision, a relentless focus on growth and development, regular investment in better performance, careful strategic oversight, and passionate involvement by leadership as well as the rank and file, your ESN can’t lack for these elements either.

Thus, here’s the short list of the top factors I now believe drive success with enterprise social networks today. By and large, these factors are not technological in nature, though they often are highly reflective of — and can be directly aided by — the technology environment in which they operate. Instead these success factors represent the foundational types of human activities and skills that helps organizations more readily tap into the increasingly well understood benefits of operating as a social business. Lack more than a couple of these factors, and your ESN isn’t likely to be much of an improvement over say, an e-mail or unified communications system, in terms of the truly differentiated impact it can have.

The Hard Won Lessons of Thriving ESNs

  • Purposeful use case design. Unlike generic communications systems, enterprise social networks perform at their best when they’re designed around specific business activities. While having user profiles, activity streams, groups, and posts at a basic level is useful in itself — and that’s what ESN platforms offer out of the box — it’s designing for specific use cases like budgeting, recruiting, supply chain exception management, and dozens of other key activities where the real business value and impact comes in. For example, I am seeing a strong push in many ESN efforts this year to help teams collaborate more effectively in the field, particularly with sales teams, as that function matters a great deal to most businesses and is one of the best ways to demonstrate value early on. But the user experience of the ESN must be extended to natively support these use cases and make them better. This generally means bespoke experiences that extend and expand the ESN to realize the highest value use cases in an optimized way, instead of hoping that generic, out-of-the-box ESN functions will somehow enable them. While most ESN platforms have tools and APIs that make this relatively straightforward, I find that most practitioners expect that their ESN will do most of what is needed out of the box.

    This is simply not the case today. In fact, some of the most compelling examples of ESN solutions are found when specific high impact use cases are enabled through purposeful design, such as with custom-designed Plus Relocation’s Elo community, which lies at the very core of how they run their business, or the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s Bridge platform, which greatly accelerates the admission process via a carefully designed and gameified experience. All of this began to be understood back in 2011 when a widely discussed post by Laurie Buczek noted from her efforts at Intel were far too disconnected from the actual work of the business to matter very much. Well-known analysts in the ESN space such as Constellation’s Alan Lepofsky identified purposeful collaboration as a key success factor back in 2013. Attached below are a sample of the some of the functional use cases that enterprise social networks can be dramatically improved through open collaboration, which I’ll be exploring in more detail soon:
    enterprise_social_networks_business_use_cases_for_social_business

  • Professional community management. I am sometimes surprised how often I still encounter a poor appreciation of the vital importance of capable community management — see TheCR’s skill wheel to understand how involved a job it is — in ensuring the long-term growth and success of an ESN. Last year I even wrote an open letter, aimed at the IT department which often does the technology implementation for an ESN (and gets charged about half the time with actually operating it), about the criticality of developing this strategic social business capability. Short version: Digital communities are a new type of entity requiring a new form of support and enablement. Do not use interns for this, don’t use the inexperienced, don’t add it to someone’s already busy day job. Instead, use experienced professionals, like you would with any other important business function. Outsource if you have to (what I call Community Management as a Service.) Invest early and plan for the long hual as the Community Roundtable has correlated it directly with the maturity level of an ESN effort.
  • Working out loud. Of all the digital skills that workers should be developing now, perhaps the one that most naturally is an onramp to most of the others and leads to both positive outcomes and compelling emergent results is the act of working out loud (WOL) in digital channels. John Stepper’s Working Out Loud book and his push for organizations to create WOL circles to build skills around the technique is probably the best place to start. My industry colleague Michelle Ockers recently posted some fascinating insights into how WOL can work with actual results from a large organization. In short, working out loud will develop vital network leadership skills, cultivate social capital, and produce higher level of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and institutional knowledge, to name just a few of the benefits by virtue of simple and straightforward daily activities in the ESN.
    Working Out Loud Fundamentals for an Enterprise Social Network
  • Network leadership. As organizations become more virtual, decentralized, and digitally-enabled, it will be in social tools that leadership will soon be wielded most effectively. Managing our organizations through digital networks has become an essential skill, just not one that we’re training for in most organizations yet, and now we must. The majority of ESN deployments spend very little time developing these skills or educating team leaders, managers, and executives in the basic skills of network leadership, yet are often surprised when highly meaningful and impactful activity to the organization doesn’t take place there.
  • Digital collaboration skill development. In general, organizations are not developing the human skills as much as they are developing their digital workplace technologies. Almost every ESN effort I have encountered is under-delivering in some way on building the new skills required to get the most from social collaboration, as it depends on very different thinking such as letting the network do the work and designing your work processes for loss of control. These needn’t be — and shouldn’t be — complex digital skill education programs. Collaborate with your learning and development team and build some lightweight digital collaboration skill development content (videos, quick starts), add ESN education to new hire onboarding, cultivate WOL circles, and then evangelize and educate at every opportunity across the organization.
  • Supportive and engaged senior stakeholders. Perhaps the fastest and most effective way to get traction and sustain success with an ESN is to have active and fully participative leadership. This means both support and sponsorship as well as active presence in the enterprise social network itself. One of the first thing ESN practitioners should focus on is landing at least two senior executives willing to lend their reputation and standing in the organization to the effort. How important is this really? In the Community Roundtable’s survey data, year-after-year, it generally comes in as a top two factor, so it’s high on the importance scale.
  • Guardrails on activities that impede being a connected company. There are some easy ways that organizations can inadvertently reduce the benefits of social collaboration. One of the top ones is making it too easy to create private groups in the ESN. This is easy to remedy, if you’re aware of it: Leading social business exemplars like Bosch require users to submit a business case for private groups as a “tax” to place friction on keeping information hidden. Not retiring aging digital channels that are less open and participative can also be factor, as workers will initially tend to gravitate back to the tools and channels they know. In general, be diligent in not breaking FLATNESSES, which is a more detailed mnemonic I adapted from Andrew McAfee’s initial SLATES mnemonic describing what makes social tools different and more powerful than what came before.

ESNs are about people + digital technology: Focus in that order

Are there other success factors? Sure, and they vary widely depending on the organization, its culture, inclinations, and level of digital competency. If you want a deeper drive, I previously explored in detail, by pulling from several dozen client studies and industry case examples, what early adoption success patterns for ESNs were, since that phase was what most organizations were focused on then. We’ve learned some additional lessons since then — most of which are summarized above — but it’s still a useful breakdown if you need more techniques to drive success.

Does all of this sound overly complex? Not really. Social technologies themselves are getting very good at making the fundamentals easier, while there is a growing body of knowledge that can be used as a template for the structures and processes one needs to put into place. I’ve previous explored the structure side several times, both in terms of specific roles and organizational capability, while the process side is well-depicted in aforementioned community manager skill wheel.

In short, never before has it been easier to adopt enterprise social networks and achieve significant impact. It just takes a focus on what matters most, which is a steady choreography that consists of shifting human skills and supporting collaboration technologies together towards business goals. I now believe that most organization can get to ESN success quickly and repeatably, but only if they assess and adequately address the full dimension of people and technology concerns required.

Additional Reading

How Social Technology has Emerged as an Enterprise Management Model

Can we achieve a better, more effective digital workplace?

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Seeking a Modern Foundation for the Digital Workplace

Take a few minutes and try to imagine the workplace of the near future. What does it look like? Some of the likely items to consider are these:

  • Are mobile, cloud-based productivity and collaboration apps the center of the next-generation digital workplace?
  • Will we all switch over from e-mail to Slack-like lightweight messaging services supported by contextual apps and intelligent chatbots?
  • Will the workplace of the future be contained almost entirely inside virtual reality experiences that provide ultra-realistic online workplaces, complete with engaging avatars of our co-workers and AI-based assistants?
  • Will social networks and online communities become the leading way that we manage our organizations and conduct our work?
  • Will we soon control everything with our voices, gestures, and even our thoughts?

Almost certainly the answer is yes to all of these questions, and many similar ones. It’s just a matter of when. The reason it’s important to ask them, however, is that we learn very much about what we should do today by looking at where we will be tomorrow with digital work.

What’s the Organizing Principle of Digital Work?

As part of asking these questions, recently I’ve been trying to seek the answer to what the organizing principle of the digital workplace should be. The top models have shifted many times over the years, and we even had a sort of crisis in the early 2010s when we had so many competing choices, rapidly shifting technologies, and important discoveries of new digital workplace skills like mass collaboration, crowdsourcing, and Working Out Loud, to name a few. Uncertainly reined and the path forward was unclear for many. It didn’t help that far too many of us still thought about the digital workplace in primarily tech terms, instead of emphasizing that it is only by enabling people with new workplace concepts, skills, tools and techniques that we can become successful in working in new ways.

In fact, as a primary symptom of this issue, I still find that most IT departments use pure technology adoption as the primary measure of success, rather than the business metrics or KPI improvements that actually matter. With a tech-first mindset, it’s as if merely using a digital tool is somehow equivalent to effectiveness or creating measurable value. An important subject for another time, however.

The Evolution of Foundational Technology of the Digital Workplace: file servers, chat, team messaging, unified communications, enterprise social networks, portals, intranets, file sync and sharing

It’s clear to me, after being in the space for two decades, is that we generally have poor ability to balance the tech and the people in our digital workplace strategies. Admittedly, it’s a tough balancing act: If we focus too much outside the technology, we lose the insight required to see how emerging new types of digital tools directly guide us towards powerful new models of working (such as “Let the Network Do the Work“.) If we focus too much on the technology, we lose the insight required to see best how to bring the people in the workforce along with us.

However, if we can identify the right organizing principle — which gives us an effective way to think and reason about the digital workplace that provides the right mental guardrails to ensure we keep a good balance — then we are more likely to succeed. However, it’s evident that we’ve not yet hit upon the right mental framework that allows the average organization to reach the next level of the digital workplace, and its attendant benefits.

Social Business Was A Breakthrough, But Not Complete

To be sure, we’re getting closer. The idea of social business as an umbrella set of ideas for the future of work is probably got as far as any concept has managed to get in the broader marketplace. As my co-author of Social Business By Design, Peter Kim, defined it, social business is about enabling people through the nearly unlimited possibilities given to us through relentless global innovation of the network technologies that have essentially remade the entire world in the last twenty-five years:

“A social business harnesses fundamental tendencies in human behavior via emerging technology to improve strategic and tactical outcomes.”

Thus any digital workplace that doesn’t tap into the innate tendencies of both people and digital networks will be at a disadvantage over time, often profoundly. We can already see this if we look at the performance data for workplace technologies like enterprise social networks — a key foundational technology of social business — that has been captured over the years by McKinsey and numerous others.

But as I’ve observed recently by contrasting it with the emerging model of digital experience management, social business is not a complete (nor was it intended to be) view of the digital world of work. It’s just a very important way of looking at better ways to conduct our work through collaboration and engagement. But it still doesn’t encompass all the ways that digital is transforming both the workplace and the people in it.

Yet for the foreseeable future, it is in fact technology that is largely leading the discussion when it comes to new ways of working, given that is has been more successful than anything else in raising productivity and producing growth in the last few decades. But as those that have spent their life studying it, as famed economist Robert Gordon noted recently, it often takes us a long time to figure out how to achieve the benefits. Certainly there are important non-tech big concept trends today (corporate social, sustainable business, and lean enterprise come mind) but even most of the key business trends today have tech involved in them in some way.

The digital age is one reason why The Economist last year noted the profound decline in recent years of notable management gurus, who had great expertise in business and could spot important work trends, but did not as a group have the requisite digital knowledge, context, and mindset to see past the inflection point when technology began to change virtually everything we do in our organizations.

Yet Tech Now Sets the Future Of Work Agenda

Thus the evolution of key digital workplace technologies, which I’ve depicted above, is almost depressingly devoid of the people equation, largely because the industry has mostly focused on specific point tools themselves. File, documents, records, and transactions are still at the core of most on-the-ground thinking about the digital workplace, though at least conversation, collaboration, and engagement are now about as important. Now team messaging along virtual and augmented reality are on the upswing but still in early days.

Things are changing again in general in the digital workplace for a variety of reasons. This include old legacy digital workplaces aging out and younger workers having higher expectations. But the digital workplace is shifting mostly because of fast-paced innovation, tech change, and acute proliferation. As a result, we’re now seeing a more nuanced and complex conception for the digital workplace emerging; a way of thinking about connecting the pieces into a multilayered and contextual digital habitat, as opposed to a mass jumble of largely disconnected apps.

We can also see that the digital workplace wilderness that we encountered during the collaboration and app proliferation of the early 2010s was just a gentle breeze of disruption. A large raft of disruptive technology is coming to the enterprise at this very moment, and it will change the workplace more in the next 10 years than in the last 50. While we see new digital management theories such as Holacracy emerging to try to create a better defined and detailed digital organizing model for us, the reality is that any approach is subject to the same forces that dethroned the traditional gurus of management: We just can’t see how work will shift until new tech is actually upon us, forcing us to revise and rethink much of what we know in a reactive mode, rather than with forethought and strategic planning.

For this reason and others, I now believe any effective organizing principle for the digital workplace must be profoundly designed for loss of control and take into account highly emergent behavior and outcomes. I believe we’re seeing the model for information technology (IT) finally shifting in realization of this, though it will take time.

You’re Invited to Two Open Events on the New Digital Workplace

So what then should be the foundational model for work today? To help discuss this question I will be participating in two industry online events this week in which we’ll explore these topics to the fullest possible. I would like to invite you to join me in the discussion.

The first is a Town Hall Debate this Wednesday, September 14th, 2016 at 9am PT/noon ET — which I’ve humorously likened more to a cage match — with my friend, industry colleague, and content management uber guru Tony Byrne, of the Real Story Group. We’ll be grappling with all of the above and more in a live video broadcast and I hope you’ll join us and ask hard questions.

You can register for the Town Hall Debate on Enterprise Social Collaboration here.

Town Hall Debate on Enterprise Social Collaboration and Networks with Dion Hinchcliffe and Tony Byrne

The second event is a Webcast of my latest research with Jive Software’s Gili Guri-Mill where I’ll explore why the enterprise social network is emerging at the leading candidate for the foundation of the digital workplace. This will be broadcast on September 15th, 2016 at 10am PT/1pm ET, and I’ll be taking questions towards the end.

Please register for my the Webcast, titled Enterprise Social Networks: The Foundation of the Digital Workplace here.

Webcast: Enterprise Social Networks as the Foundation of the Digital Workplace by Dion Hinchcliffe

Additional Reading

What is the Future of Work?

Digital Business Ecologies: How Social Networks and Communities Are Upending Our Organizations