Ever since the Gen Y’s started marching into the workplace with their mobile devices and Facebook accounts, “Enterprise” leaders became paranoid about time wasting on “non-work” activities, often instituting a plethora of policy attempts to ban the use of social networking applications in the workplace. In recent times however the attitude to social networking at work has softened somewhat. The business use of applications like Linkedin and Twitter have actually been encouraged by some forward looking enterprises, with some even providing training in how to improve your Linkedin profile (cynically, this may have been because this organisation was just doing a round of retrenchments!). We have also seen the rise of “Enterprise Social Networking” (ESN) software, which essentially is Facebook/Linkedin/Twitter packaged for enterprise use. Current market forecasts predict a healthy future for ESNs, with the promise of improved collaboration. Microsoft’s Yammer, Jive and IBM Connect currently lead the charge from a host of fast followers. What enterprise does not want to improve their collaboration? So what is the risk?
Here’s where things get a little interesting. We know from past experiences with knowledge management systems that just sharing information is not enough to reap the full rewards from collaboration. We knew about the importance of social interaction for sharing ‘hard to codify’ tacit knowledge 20 years ago, when Nonaka and Takeuchi first framed their SECI (Socialise/Externalise/Combine/Internalise) framework for knowledge sharing.
This has more recently been reinforced with research from Knoco, who found that “connections” are 14 times more effective at sharing knowledge than “collections”. So with ESNs focused precisely on “connections” one would think that ESNs would indeed have a healthy future. For the large part however, ESNs are struggling with adoption. Hard working Community Managers are having a difficult time engaging their fellow work colleagues into using these platforms for collaborating. While some would previously have argued about functionality, most of the functions have now been “borrowed” from the public social networking platforms, for which adoption rates are still booming. So what is the problem?
We don’t have to look much further than the broader tension around what we call “Work/Life balance”. At home we can be relatively relaxed about how we might use Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter to share with our friends and connections. There is no-one dictating to us on how, when and where we should be engaging on these platforms. It’s basically our decision on how, what and where we share. Privacy is an issue for all of us, but on the whole, the majority of use have felt the benefits of being able to connect, engage and share far outweighs the privacy risks that are ever present. When we go to work however, there are other people tasked with “guiding us” on how to share and collaborate. We have policies from above that tell us what we can and can’t do. We have ‘confidential’ information that we need to be sure isn’t inadvertently leaked. We have a whole raft of functions in the organisation that have a vested interest in drawing the line on what can and cannot be shared, as far to the conservative end of the scale as possible. If that’s not enough, the majority of organisations today are still slaves to the formal organisational structure. Sharing across formal organisational boundaries, though no doubt encouraged by the senior management, can often be seen as a negative by business unit KPI driven middle management. So what can be done to change this situation?
Why ESNs Underperform
Why is it that ESN adoption underperforms when compared to their public social networking brethren, despite comparable feature richness? Invariably ESNs have been implemented like any other piece of enterprise software. The senior executive will make the announcement; there will be an official launch with said executives prominent. Community Managers and change agents will be employed to help with the adoption. The IT department will be central to the effort to ensure the platforms stay ‘secure’. Things will go swimmingly for a period post launch, until the cynicism starts to creep in. What is the ROI here? Why are the forums full of trivia or people just complaining? Why haven’t we seen more evidence of collaboration outcomes?
The core of the problem we believe is that we are applying the same “top down management lens” to an ESN implementation as we might have done when we implemented an Enterprise Resource Planning or Customer Relationship Management or Enterprise Document Management System. These systems are information-centred, not people-centred. They are designed to reinforce the organisation’s designed business processes, whether it be to track a product through the supply chain, capture a customer contact or ensure a record is kept for compliance reasons. Top down management oversight is required and expected to ensure that uniform compliance to these designed “best practices” are adhered to.
Social Networking software is different. Its strength is not in supporting pre-designed collaboration practices. It’s not even substantially about information, though collaboration may occur around information artifacts. Its strength is in engaging people around constructive conversations. Being people-centred, ESNs are designed to facilitate and sustain profitable connections. Management oversight is for the purpose of facilitation, not direction. People volunteer to join ESNs because they personally benefit from doing so; not for their manager’s or even the CEO’s benefit. If the organisation has not enrolled the individual into the mission of the enterprise to an extent where they can be trusted to collaborate appropriately, without oversight, then no amount of management coercion will substitute.
ESN analytics have also fallen into the “top down” management mantra. They track traffic in the same way as one would track a product through their supply chain. They focus on quantity, rather than quality with “number of posts” being given precedence over “number and depth of engagements”. Individuals are left with reports on their individual activity levels rather than the measures that might help them to enhance their network and progress their careers in the organisation. While the Community Manager requires “top down” analytics to help them do their facilitation job, Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin levels of adoption performance will only be achieved if employee-led, not management-led.
To have your Yammer/Jive/IBM Connect performance up there with Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin levels we suggest:
1. Think like Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin. What do you need to do to encourage the individual to join in? What features would encourage the individual to log in multiple times every day.
2. Show trust by letting the individual choose and manage their own privacy levels, rather than applying a top down blanket policy.
3. Show trust my moving the ‘enterprise risk’ marker from the far ‘conservative’ end to the ‘managed risk’ end of the scale.
4. Make it as easy to get to your ESN, especially on mobile devices, as you can get to your Facebook account.
5. Move from activity based metrics to engagement metrics. For example, rather than posts, count responses. Look at the density of conversations, rather than the number of them. Help staff connect to people they are looking to connect with (like Linkedin).
6. Reward connectors. Look for those people who are connecting across formal organisation boundaries and look to reinforce and reward such behaviour.
7. Encourage the development of more ‘campaign based’ groups that are competency, task or innovation driven. Use relationship analytics to predict performance of these result driven groups, thereby addressing the ROI question.