Enterprise Social Networking Underwhelms, At Least at First

The first enterprise social networks are delivering mixed results.

The results are in, and the first enterprise social networks (ESN) are delivering mixed results.

That's one nugget from Making the Case for Enterprise Social Networks, a new report published by consultancy Altimeter Group, which interviewed 13 technology providers and 185 users, along with 81 decision makers, who are involved in or who have oversight of ESN efforts.

Its research indicates that more than half of all ESN deployments are enterprise-wide in scope. The study also found that most business consumers (a) initially enjoy the experience of participating in an ESN and (b) overwhelmingly identify the use of (and participation in) an ESN as potentially valuable in several respects, including: easier transfer of best practices; enhanced collaboration (particularly across departments); more effective identification of expertise (or of other in-house resources); and reductions in the volume of both meetings and internal e-mail.

The rub, write Altimeter Group researchers Charlene Li, Alan Webber, and Jon Cifuentes -- the authors of the report -- is that this initial enthusiasm often wears off.

"Some organizations have deployed social-networking features with an initial enthusiastic reception, only to see these early efforts wither to just a few stalwart participants," the trio write, explaining that, not surprisingly, "Most companies approach enterprise social networks as a technology deployment and fail to understand that the new relationships created by enterprise social networks are the source for value creation."

For starters, they stress, the Facebook model, on its own terms, does not an enterprise social network make. What works more or less out of the box for 850 million people distributed across several hundred countries doesn't work -- or can't be expected to work -- once it's grafted into an enterprise context. There are good reasons for this. "Every enterprise has distinct needs and nuances that require a reframing of a social network," Li, Webber, and Cifuentes write.

They describe six elements of social networking they believe are common to -- but which differ in the context of -- public versus enterprise social networks. "[E]nterprise social networks differ because of the special context that comes with being part of the workplace -- a structure of team, projects, and reporting relationships that do not change by our choice." The authors stress that -- although an ESR must adequately reflect this existing structure -- it shouldn't only reflect the status quo. Social networking, after all, is about relationships.

In fact, social networking is a killer app for identifying and establishing new relationships. In this case, Li, Webber, and Cifuentes argue, the new relationships that arise out of enterprise social interaction could potentially address "problems in that existing business structure." Too often, however, ESRs end up reinforcing existing relationships.

Altimeter Group points to the example of Dell Computer Corp., which -- like many companies -- rolled out an enterprise-wide ESN, encompassing IT, marketing, sales, corporate communications, and other business units. At this point, however, only about 60 percent of Dell's employees are participating. The bulk of these, a Dell representative told Li, Webber, and Cifuentes, are centered in sales and marketing -- basically, where the ESN push started.

Why do employees lose interest in an ESN? Part of it, not surprisingly, has to do with the obvious: in many cases, it seems less like fun and more like work. Business decision-makers and executives don't necessarily help matters, either.

"Many organizations described how they had to overcome executive resistance to any kind of nonbusiness-related content being allowed on the ESN out of fear that the ESN would impact productivity," the analysts write. "Another organization [with 100,000 employees] did just the opposite -- … they encouraged people to connect on personal interests and found they were more likely to also share work-related expertise and interests."

There's another, bigger problem here, too: companies are too frequently using inadequate -- or wrong-headed -- metrics to assess an ESN's business impact. "[O]rganizations frequently used metrics at the engagement level -- such as frequency of use and percent of employees using the ESN," according to the authors. "Organizations also admitted that despite having some metrics in place, they generally do not measure ESNs well and would like to see … improvement." Few shops have confidence in the metrics they're using -- and some aren't even attempting to measure impact. "[A] quarter admitted that they did not use any metrics at all," the authors write. "With no concrete metrics in place with which to benchmark the ESN, companies … had few ways to connect ESN behavior to business impact and value."

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