A corporate social network might function like Facebook, but it's not Facebook. The idea that people will quickly and easily adopt an enterprise social network because of the parallel with consumer social media is one "people overestimate at their peril--employees may be used to Facebook, but they're not used to using it for work," one social software project leader from a financial services firm told me.
Some organizations do see rapid adoption of enterprise social networks, and familiarity is a factor. When Supervalu decided to unite its brands around Yammer, CIO Wayne Shurts said one of the advantages was that "nobody needs to take a class in Yammer," or at least not unless they need to use its advanced features.
[ It's not easy implementing a social enterprise network. See 10 Enterprise Social Networking Obstacles. ]
However, enterprise social networks necessarily function differently from consumer ones because they are used to share work documents (such as spreadsheets and engineering drawings) and must meet enterprise standards of security. Employees must be enticed into using and experimenting with these environments enough that they see both the business utility and the value of the social component--how building stronger connections with other people, and meeting new people through the network can help them get their work done.
Adoption is a smaller challenge for smaller organizations such as Motley Fool, the investing website publisher that employs about 250 people, most of them probably quite Web savvy. The Fool began using Socialtext as a way to cut down on broadcast emails and "reply to all" threads by providing a more efficient way of sharing short status messages. Moving content into the Socialtext environment also cut down on content sprawl across wikis and SharePoint sites.
Larger enterprises with deeper layers of existing collaboration systems have more inertia, and social software advocates must show how their alternative is superior to what is already in place. That might be easier when the existing collaboration systems are broken or incomplete.
At Supervalu, that was one of the reasons Yammer was initially adopted on an ad-hoc basis as a freemium product and later endorsed by the CEO and embraced by IT. Having grown through acquisitions, the grocery chain operated on fragmented systems and management hierarchies that were separated by brands (such as Shaw's in the Northeast and Albertson's in the West). The enterprise social network proved to be a unifying force, bringing together store managers from across the country and across brands to discuss issues they had in common. For example, store managers across all brands who operate in college towns or seashore communities now collaborate on marketing programs to serve those audiences, something they never had a good way of doing before.
A social software project leader at an industrial firm told me a similar story about factory managers from different divisions and different parts of the world making connections they never would have otherwise and solving problems faster as a result. For example, when employees at one location began conferring online about the problems they were encountering with a new fabrication process, their Jive installation was smart enough to give them a "if you like this conversation, you'll probably also like this conversation over here" prompt. As a result, they connected with workers in a factory on the other side of the world who had encountered the same problem.
This firm, which I unfortunately can't name just yet, is pursuing a strategy of introducing enterprise social networking a business unit at a time to start with, with the goal of having a long list of success stories to point to when the time comes for a broader enterprise rollout. Success begets success.
"Once you get to having communities of thousands of people, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy--people want to join so they can see what is going on," said Mark Torr, the administrator of a Technology Practice interest group on The Hub, an internal social network at SAS Institute that is based on Socialcast. That group currently has over 2,000 members who participate in discussions on technology marketing.
Torr said it's true that although an enterprise social network adds yet another channel for business communication on top of email, at the same time it potentially cuts down on some email. "It's just like when they invented email, the phone didn't stop ringing," he said. "On the other hand, on social networks people don't tend to write quite as verbosely, so you get to the point a lot quicker."
Why Employees Don't Like Social Apps
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