Do enterprise social networks matter?


Massive global online social networks have enabled consumers to disrupt markets and even helped citizens to disrupt governments. But what about social networks within business? Is there potential to improve the workplace?

The quick answer would be Yes! But the messy reality of most workplaces mean the outcome is not quite so clear.

Here are some real-world observations, based on organisations who have piloted and/or rolled out enterprise social networking tools over the past 2 years for internal purposes:

  • The most active uses have all shared a similar trait: connecting a distributed peer group focused on R&D-style activities. People who talk the same language (i.e. domain-specific) and share the same interests but are geographically dispersed.
  • The weakest use has been when it is deployed as a generic organisation-wide tool for everyone to start communicating online. There may be an initial flare of activity but usage tends to drop-off within 6 months.
  • The organisations who experience the most demonstrable benefits are in intellectually competitive markets, particularly science, technology and engineering, where specialist expertise is highly sought and valued but where there is openness to expanding knowledge.
  • Most senior managers are surprised at how well enterprise social networking tools are embraced when people are given the opportunity to participate.
  • Most successful deployments have at least one role dedicated to encouraging and moderating participation. May be a permanent role, can also be an ‘on rotation’ responsibility.

Here are some factors to consider before deploying enterprise social network tools:

  • What’s the intended outcome – Is it to strengthen relationships? Uncover hidden pockets of knowledge? Mine skills for collective intelligence? Involve people in decisions? Speed up access to expertise? Improve communications?
  • Are the dependencies in place – Will people have time to participate? Will they care (priorities)? Will their contributions be acknowledged, used, ignored or dismissed? How will conflicts be resolved?
  • What’s the overall culture of the organisation like – Is gossip encouraged or frowned upon?
  • Don’t mix up collaborative working with social networks. Different audiences, different activities. But one can help the other to scale…
  • Don’t get too hooked up on the technology choice – the value is in the conversation.
  • Consider training to improve communication skills for key roles.

And if there’s one tip above all others for getting started, try focusing on a specific area of the organisation rather than thinking ‘we are going social’. Can an enterprise social network create the digital equivalent of the water cooler or coffee area for a peer group that is otherwise unable to chat on a regular or ad-hoc basis?

Related blog posts

Flickr image: “Group Dynamics” kindly shared by Gary Cooper

The risk in eliminating risk


— Update: July 2013 —

Earlier this month there was a news article covering the deaths of two teenagers in a car accident. The cause? It is believed that they were driving dangerously fast in order to get home before a curfew. Missing the deadline would have led to a £100 fine. A lot of money for most students. The car had been fitted (optionally) with a tracking device intended to encourage safer driving. An ill-conceived idea leading to tragic unintended consequences: Insurance curfew blamed for fatal teenage car crash.

Whilst the theory was sound, life can be messy. Would anybody prefer a teenage driver to risk speeding to beat a curfew or risk staying put in a vulnerable location to avoid a fine or driving ban? Legislation to eliminate one risk created another, possibly worse, in its place.

— Original post: September 2010 —

Heard on the radio this morning and currently one of the headlines on the BBC News web site: New driver restrictions would save lives:

Newly qualified young drivers should be banned from night-time motoring and carrying passengers of a similar age, Cardiff University researchers say… “graduated driver licensing” for those aged 17-24 could save more than 200 lives and result in 1,700 fewer serious injuries each year.

The research in question is road accident data from 2000 to 2007 that suggests one in five new drivers crashes within the first six months. So the plan is to try and eliminate the range of conditions that led to the accidents? That’s just delaying taking responsibility for your actions.

Rather than attempting to ban youngsters from certain driving conditions, which would be both expensive and impossible to police, I’ve a better suggestion – advise parents to not pay for driving lessons or buy cars for their children. From my own informal observations, people who have to earn and save money to pay for their own driving lessons and to buy their own car (and then save for another six months to afford the insurance) will treat it with a lot more respect and will therefore be less likely to crash (the insurance premium alone will be a sufficient deterrent for most).

Trying to eliminate risk through legislation is, at best, an inefficient approach. And at worst, can make matters worse – the law of unintended consequences is particularly active in systems involving people. Cue link to information systems ūüôā

When deploying intranets and collaborative web sites, the issue of security and permissions is always a challenge. Many organisations want to lock down access to everything, i.e. you can only access documents you have explicit permission to use. It’s a risk avoidance strategy. Research could probably justify it by showing you that one in five new employees leak data during their first six months… The more effective solution for that scenario would be to improve your recruitment process.

Whilst some information does need to be tightly controlled – particularly anything of a legal and/or sensitive nature involving personal information – it is usually a small percentage of an information system. Manage that percentage as an exception rather than the rule and don’t apply rigid security by default. In attempting to eliminate the risk of someone seeing something they shouldn’t you risk making it difficult for everyone to see everything they need. That is not a good outcome for a system that is supposed to improve productivity and collaboration.

Dell B2B Social Media Huddle

On 25th May 2010, Microsoft hosted Dell’s second B2B Social Media Huddle in London.

This blog post will look at what has changed since the previous event held last December, and will be a shorter post than the original series. Some content was repeated or similar and reading the first series would be a good place to start, beginning with Dell B2B Social Media Huddle – Part 1 (December 2009).

Overall, the tone was more muted this time and focused on the reality of social media, mixing lessons learned in how to benefit from social media with examples that question its value in a business-to-business (B2B) context. I suspect that’s because business-to-business examples are far more likely to be found under the umbrella of Enterprise 2.0 than Social Media. At this event, there was a lot more emphasis on social media for advertising and marketing.

Does Social Media Matter?

12 months ago, the first time¬†Domino’s Pizza management heard about what their employees had been up to on YouTube was when they were tipped off by a blogger. The incident was considered a case study in why businesses should be more actively monitoring and participating in social media. But Domino’s did react quickly once notifed and, 12 months later, has any damage been done to the brand? The evidence suggests you can fail miserably (initially) at social media, the judgement comes more from your reaction and how you get out of a bad situation rather than how you got into it…

During one of the unconference sessions, the presenter Ciaran Norris played a video of IKEA leveraging Facebook for social media marketing. IKEA created a profile, uploaded photos and whoever was first to tag an item in the photo won the item. Held up as a great example of how to engage your audience, what’s the benefit? Outside those who received free goods, does it change anyone else’s opinion? Decide for yourself:

Whilst I’m unconvinced about how much value was generated from this one-time limited lucky dip, for sure some value was created. And that’s perhaps the point we have reached with social media…

What’s the Return on Inaction?

With businesses struggling to put a value on social media efforts, making any potential return on investment hard to predict, an alternative approach was offered – evaluating the return on inaction. (You could equally use ‘Risk on Inaction’.) What happens if you do nothing? In the era of telephones, if your customers all had telephones would you choose not to have one? What’s the value of that telephone? How about the value of having an email address? Or web site?…

Whilst I’m getting more than a little tired of videos displaying trends to a thumping tune designed to have everyone reacting in amazement, the numbers do illustrate just how far we have travelled down the rabbit hole in to Internet wonderland.

Target who you interact with…

It was interesting to observe at the event how Dell and Cisco continue to expand their social media efforts to reach a larger audience. Both have multiple accounts on Twitter and fan pages/groups on Facebook. For brands, it seems the more successful use of Social Media come from specalisation, connecting with multiple but very specific audiences rather than the generic TV method of targeting everyone/stereotypes. It would be prohibitively expensive to create specialist adverts for print and TV media, but not so with social networks.

…and let your targets find you

I’ve tweeted my frustration at seeing Nokia target my Facebook profile with pink versions of their outdated phones, when the only data they have to go on is that my profile gender is female. That is no different to a stereotyped TV advert. The successful uses of online sites like Facebook and Twitter involve creating channels that people want to join. We ignore banners splattered around the site then go visit the fan page of a brand. They are both advertising mechanisms. Facebook’s challenge is that it is currently trying to monetise using the old fashioned format rather than the new.¬†Just as the advertising industry never thought online text ads would work when Google first introduced them to finance a search engine, the same disruptive thinking is needed if advertising is to also finance a social network.

“Be careful what you wish for…”

It’s that age old quote and one to consider by all businesses tentatively engaging in social media to promote sales. Back to the IKEA example. Technically, they broke Facebook’s terms of service (ToS) by creating a profile to advertise their products. And the idea has recently spawned fake imitations with fans being duped into handing over ¬†personal details to con artists – see¬†IKEA Imposter attracts thousands of Facebook fans per hour. Unlikely to cause long-term damage to IKEA but time and resources are now required to monitor and manage the social media channels they have chosen to participate in.

To wrap-up, the repeating message throughout the event was that social media will take time and resources, and you will fail at some point. The medium is too unpredictable to not fail, as IKEA is now learning. It’s how you respond and adjust that will make all the difference. With all the pitfalls, it may feel tempting to try and ignore social media. But the simple fact is, you can’t. It’s like the telephone, email and web sites. In their early days, they were a luxury. But once they became established, to not participate is to not be in business. Once you overcome the realisation that avoiding social media is pointless, you can start to focus on the unique benefits it can offer that justify managing those inevitable pitfalls.

Twitter has brought down barriers to communicate with people you would previously have struggled to connect with

Mel Carson talked through lessons learned by Microsoft Advertising as they began to engage in social media. This quote was the highlight and is applicable to everyone. For Mel, it resulted in getting Stephen Fry to attend a meeting. Whilst you might not secure a visit from Mr Fry to your birthday party, there is nothing stopping you from contacting him, direct, through Twitter. It is becoming common for TV shows to include a Twitter hashtags. Two examples from the BBC – The Virtual Revolution and Wonders of the Solar System. In both cases, the presenters continue to be active on Twitter and will happily argue discuss their point with you. At this event, it was interesting to note that all but two presenters in the brochure had included their Twitter IDs.

This post has summarised some of the content from the excellent Dell B2B Social Media Huddle. A follow up post will look specifically at B2B and B2E (internal) uses of social media. Thanks again to Kerry Bridges and Neville Hobson for organising, and Mel Carson from Microsoft for hosting.

Presentations from the event:

Related blog posts: Social Media tag

How to lower productivity

There are plenty of books, talks and case studies demonstrating that people work better when they are happy and motivated. Yet it seems too many employers will stop at nothing to make the workplace devoid of any personality. has posted a great article about how employers are increasingly looking to tools to monitor what their employees are getting up to on social networks. The title says it all – Keeping a Closer Eye on Employees‚Äô Social Networking Will Give You More Than a Headache. The post references a New York Times article of the same title (without the headache) which, to give an idea of its content, includes the quote: “You definitely want to take advantage of your legal right to monitor,” by Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute.

Organisations that get their underwear in a twist (I was going to say knickers but guess it might not translate outside of the UK…) over idiotic but mostly harmless activities employees (current or prospective) get up to on Facebook and other social networks risk limiting themselves to an ever-decreasing pool of talent. That is unlikely to be a successful business strategy.

If you want to read a book full of advice on this topic, I highly recommend ‘What Were They Thinking‘ by Jeffrey Pfeffer, published in 2007 by Harvard Business School Press. The first chapter heading says it all: “It’s people, not software, that build customer relationships”…