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Are enterprise social networks worth it? A CIO experiments

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Niel Nickolaisen

Of late, I have been talking to several people about enterprise social networks -- designing and deploying an internal version of Facebook or LinkedIn as a way to support and encourage internal communication and collaboration. The feedback I have gotten is decidedly mixed. Some of my IT peers tell me this latest flavor of enterprise collaboration is essential and the most important thing they've done; others tell me it is a complete waste of time and causes more problems than it solves. In other words, I am getting no help in deciding if this is something I must have or if it is something I should avoid at all costs.

With so little help coming from my usually reliable network, I decided to think through it myself and do some experiments.

My thinking

Are we hoping that enterprise social networking technology will solve the problem of humans not communicating? Or, do we need the technology because they don't have the right tools to communicate?

One of the first questions I like to confront in thinking through a new technology or application is whether it will repair a broken process. Are we hoping that enterprise social networking technology will solve the problem of humans not communicating? Or, do we need the technology because they don't have the right tools to communicate? It seems natural that as organizations get bigger and as the individuals and teams in organizations get busier, we humans communicate less. Over my career, I have spent lots of time in leadership team meetings talking about how to solve internal communication problems, but we never seem to resolve them. Is that because we lack the tools or because we lack the desire? Perhaps this is why I got such different answers to my questions about enterprise social networking -- if the communication/collaboration problem is a lack of tools, enterprise social networking is a solution; if it is human nature, that problem needs to be solved first.

First experiment on enterprise social networks

We had just finished doing our long-range planning, which I always immediately share with my IT staff and organization so we can start to form our IT plans and map our activities to the updated goals. As a communication experiment, I explained the plans to my staff and asked them to share them with their teams. For follow-up, I asked some members of their teams if they knew the updated goals. Some did, some did not. Did some members of my staff fail to cascade the communication? Or, did some of their team members not pay attention? In either case, would technology improve this communication? Perhaps. If the plans and its implications were published and available to all for comment, could we weigh in on the plans without dependence on the weakest link of all -- humans?

Second experiment

As our university has grown, we feel less connected with others in the university. And, as we all get busier, we tend to communicate less with those outside of our department and value stream. We wanted to see if technology would improve the communication across all groups. We decided to start small. We had access -- for free -- to a tool that could act as an electronic suggestion box. We would publish our long-range plans and updated goals into this environment, give everyone access, and ask them to participate in suggesting and then promoting ideas that would help us reach those goals. Would only a few people participate? Should we moderate the discussion? (My only personal requirement was that we delete any ideas that suggested the key to reaching the goals was to fire me.) Would we actually implement any of the suggestions?

Findings

We continue various experiments on enterprise social networks but, based on these first two experiments, I feel safe in reaching the following conclusions:

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  • We can use technology to leapfrog over people and processes that hoard information. Those who were excluded through no fault of their own from communication and collaboration will now automatically be included in the process.
  • If no one wants to participate or engage, technology will not change that.
  • Just as it is difficult to force people to communicate and collaborate, it is difficult to force them to use technology to communicate and collaborate.
  • It is well worth some level of pilot or experimentation to see how successfully technology can improve communication and collaboration.

So, be careful before proposing and rolling out a global enterprise social networking program. If the culture is prone to internal networking, it will be wildly successful. If not, it will join the pile of other failed technologies.

This was first published in April 2013

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