5 Conditions of the Successful Social Enterprise

Enterprise social networking (ESN) is the Manifest Destiny of business communications; connecting a globally dispersed workforce. Yet few organizations make good on the promise of this collaborative technology.

The business case for enterprise social networking is clear: Get the right people and the right information together at the right time, and you have a potent compound for innovation and problem-solving. Add today’s globally dispersed workforce to the picture, and collaborative technologies are all but inevitable.

Yet six years after “Enterprise 2.0″was first coined, few organizations are living the ESN promise. Faced with ESN options like IM, micro blogs, Yammer, and status updates, many workers still favor plain old email and phone. File sharing takes place off the ESN radar, and knowledge remains siloed in discrete business applications. What happened to the ideal of frictionless collaboration?

IT analysts think they have an answer: ESN rollouts fixate on networking at the expense of social. In doing so, organizations miss out on the true value of the technology — its power to connect and engage people.

“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,” said Charlene Li of Altimeter Group in her February 2012 report, Making the Business Case for Enterprise Social Networks.

It’s all part of the new emphasis in IT on communications media over data-processing tools. Geoffrey Moore’s “systems of engagement” versus the “systems of record”, like CRM and supply chain management software. Engagement, unlike recordkeeping, can’t be implemented by executive fiat. These systems develop organically as the technology integrates into daily work practices.

“Social business systems need to be implemented within a context, and that context is the processes that drive the business,” said Moore in his 2011 white paper A Sea Change in Enterprise IT .

The secret to a successful social platform, say IT managers and analysts, is to establish the conditions for a collaborative culture first. Analysts and IT professionals offer a variety of takes on what those conditions are, but the common thread is a flexible and open organization that allows social-networked business processes to emerge from the ground up. Only in this environment can ideas and information flow freely, stoking innovation and effective collaboration.

5 conditions for a thriving social enterprise

1. Lateral management – Command and control and other regimented, hierarchical approaches to management tend to preempt the productive interactions that collaboration technologies are designed to promote — dissent, brainstorming, crowdsourcing of ideas, off the cuff remarks, serendipitous encounters, etc. More fundamentally, a top down approach stifles the user’s own exploration of how the social networking tools can help her do her job better.

A social organization needs managers who coordinate rather than direct workers, embracing emergent processes. Andreas Scherer, a consultant at Salto Partners and former executive at AOL and Netscape, sees a counterproductive project management paradigm in place today, in which senior managers conceive the project plan in isolation and impose it on the team. Yet, social networking technology demands and enables the active involvement of the team at all levels, from planning to execution.

“One of the best ways to get a solid project plan is to actually bring people together and talk about the assumptions and the risks,” Scherer said. “The ESN captures all aspects of the project, including some of the contrarian opinions that otherwise would be swept under the carpet.”

Often, these contributions hint to issues that the team leader hasn’t yet accounted for.

2. Dynamic team structure. Enterprise social networking empowers a more dynamic, ad hoc formation of teams across the organization. Workers identify the right talent to help with a project, be it the person in the next cubicle or a teleworker in another time zone. This dynamic, temporary and self-directed team formation helps organizations optimize their resources and respond more quickly to changing market forces.

David Thomas tells the story, in The Executive’s Guide to Enterprise Social Media Strategy, of an Accenture director who was able to quickly marshal a team of experts and existing knowledge assets by putting a call out on the company’s social network. Respondents linked to the relevant community of practice saw the request and offered their time, expertise and/or prior work to help move the project forward.

IDEO’s The Tube functions as a marketplace for forming such teams. Team leaders announce and staff an upcoming project using social media tools, referring to designers’ profile pages to browse past work and identify coworkers with the right skills for a particular job.

3. Seamless integration of business technologies – The ideals of open communication and transparency apply to the data systems, too. To be effective, an ESN needs to bridge all of the organization’s information and communication applications. CRM, CMS, search, file sharing and communications should all happen on an integrated and easily accessible platform.

Symantec’s CRM and social platform operate as one, for example. In addition to integrating account and opportunity management, the company uses the technology for communication-dependent functions like pricing, contract approvals, and sharing leads.

4. Borderless engagement – “IT systems … have to engage at the edge in a way that they’ve never had to before,” said Moore. A successful ESN brings together a far-flung network that extends beyond the traditional boundaries of the company, to vendors, partners, outside experts and customers. To enable productive interaction among all these stakeholders, it’s important for business leaders to break down barriers wrought by both security practices and physical distance.

IT executives can influence the success of the borderless enterprise by ensuring that the ESN works on mobile devices, by implementing security measures that bring everyone — even those on the periphery — into the fold and by resisting the temptation to censor what can be said and exchanged on the ESN.

5. Aligned incentives – Managers can shape incentives to promote the desired use of the ESN. Too often, explains Analyst Tamara Erickson, companies install social networking technology in such a way that the technology adds work for employees. The implication is that workers should do their jobs and also spend time sharing ideas.

Instead, managers can position the system so that it empowers and rewards users.

  • Want employees to get involved with the system? Integrate it with business processes, so it offers direct value in their daily jobs. Let users determine how the tools help them do their jobs better.
  • Want users to invest time sharing and recording their knowledge within the system? Create a culture that prizes knowledge sharing and include this virtue in performance assessment. UX expert Greg Nudelman has seen social enterprises use a peer-based “helpfulness” index to evaluate employees based on their involvement in the network.
  • Want to make the most useful contributions and experts the most visible? Implement a simple, easy-to-use rating system for content and people. A voting function (thumbs up or down) and a trending feature broadcasting recent threads relevant to the user’s interest group are among IT consultant Joseph Lukan’s recommendations. “The tool needs to have the ability to consolidate opinions or thought.”

BASF incentivized employees to use their social network by letting their daily practices shape the network. For example, senior managers didn’t define interest groups in advance, but let users build communities of interest as the need arose.

ABI Research expects the enterprise social collaboration sector to grow from $1 billion in 2012 to $3.5 billion by 2016. Yet many organizations still need to connect the dots between the technology and the community it serves. By building a culture of flexibility and worker self-determination, managers can evolve the business from an enterprise with a social network to a fully-networked social enterprise.