Facebook and Twitter have fast emerged as de facto methods of communication in our day to day personal lives. The surprising part is this trend is increasing not just amongst the younger generation, the so called millennials(the future generation about to join the workforce) but the fastest growth is being observed among the baby boomers. Social software isn’t just for reporting last night’s dinner menu or the antics of your dog anymore. It’s making significant inroads in the enterprise. The text and document-centric focus in enterprises is quickly giving way to a more social people-centered paradigm.

For long, enterprises have operated in a command and control structure and still continue to do so.  Strict lines of demarcation are drawn between different departments. The identity of a person is one that is given to us by our role, title or by my affiliation to a certain department or group. Knowledge is stored within our brains and not shared as we learn and grow in a company outside of our local office groups.  A veteran employee at a prominent IT company once said “I wish everyone knew what I knew”. This parallel exists in many companies where we have employees who have worked 5, 10, 15 years and have that valuable knowledge but haven’t shared it.  Sometimes there is sharing from time to time within a group or department but that knowledge is often in silos, not easily searchable. Tools are picked to do specific tasks; we have email, CRM applications and finally Unified communications.  Each provides their respective benefits in increasing productivity but over time grow independently and are procured by different departments where there is no sharing of information. The key part is figuring out how people work/communicate within an enterprise rather than focus on the tools.

Let’s walk through some use cases to make this point. Take the case of a Global R&D company that is looking at innovative ideas for their next product. In most traditional enterprises this involves picking a few members who then send emails out, store files on a file server and maybe track information in a CRM system. Their world is restricted to their group or geography. Employees who have worked in the company long enough know who to work with, but others are left out who might have valuable insight to provide since those “human connections” haven’t been made that happen over time. Employees in other geographies don’t get to see the ideas being discussed in other parts of their enterprise wasting precious cycles. What if we had a mechanism that could allow us to create communities of interest? We could potentially look at communities created by geography or interest. Instead of flooding emails to everyone, users could decide to join these communities of interest and create a post. This would appear in their “feed” or activity stream on their home page. This way they can decide if that post is relevant to them and respond to it. If they want to tune out they can just remove themselves from that community. One can also see over time who they enjoy following and building networks with to solve problems. These dynamic social networks couldn’t have been created with email or tools that follow rigid boundary lines. This allows people to share, collaborate and build a network with other employees no matter where they are located. Things like communities and activity streams show them what’s happening in your communities of interest; user updates that show when people in your professional network are uploading documents, changing their status, joining communities.

In addition each person could also be tagged with an expertise. This means even if they were new to the company and they don’t have relationships, the social engine can help them figure out who those members are that have talent in specific areas that they could use. The social network just expanded. They can decide at a moment how to get a hold of the person using email, voice, video or a collaboration solution which greatly increases the speed of communication by just hovering over their profile/identity. In addition they could have widgets that could tie this to multiple backend CRM systems. This prevents the user from having to navigate from one tool to the next but rather communicate as they would do in their personal life and the social software would “mash” the information together. Information is stored and searchable which allows future projects to build off earlier projects which prevents us from “reinventing the wheel”. The community can be used to monitor how many likes and/or comments are received for various idea posts. This is real time feedback that the company gets before taking the idea to market. This information can also then be accessed from a plethora of mobile devices such as iPad, iPhone, or Android device providing users with the flexibility they need.

An excellent example of how this works is with on-boarding a new employee. A staff member can get to know peers much more quickly by visiting their profiles, seeing to whom they’re connected, to which communities they belong, and what they post in their status feeds or their personal blogs. HR can then ensure the collective knowledge (wisdom) of the company is available to one and all.

It provides one with the power of empowerment since they can take initiative to solve business issues by creating communities/teams no matter where the other person is physically located and furthermore be identified in their profiles as experts to other people within the company.

However, implementing social software is unlike any other tool. It’s not a piece of machinery that you install and hope for results. It requires understanding the use cases within the company. Some leading questions that need to be answered:

  1. How do you communicate today? Does email fill all your requirements or do you often get lost in the noise?
  2. How does marketing or sales share ideas?
  3. How do you bring new ideas to market?

On the technology side some “must have features” are:

  1. Ability to create profiles
  2. Create a social network through communities that can have different access levels such as Open or Restricted
  3. Tight integration with Unified communication applications such as Presence, Voice, Video technologies
  4. Ability to tie in with existing backend applications like content management,
  5. Ability to add widgets or gadgets based on industry standards like Open social, WSRP etc.
  6. Policy Management and Security

One then needs to pick a specific pain point and run a pilot. There also needs to be a champion who can not only bring users together but find those key power users who can drive adoption within their group. Integration with existing systems such as email and CRM is key.  This is important because while social networks are being built they shouldn’t disrupt how people work today but rather slowly bring them to a new method of communication. There also has to be regular review. Is there traffic on the communities? Are people able to share, learn from other posts? It is key to have regular review meetings to see how people are using the social software and see if any additions could be made better.  Understanding the culture and processes within a company is key to implementing this successfully.

The road ahead is exciting, we have been using email as a method of communication for over a decade. However people communicate both synchronously and asynchronously. One size doesn’t fit all. Sometimes users just need to post, get ideas, work on documents, write a blog (asynchronous) and other times they need to collaborate with team members and tie in multiple methods of communication such as voice, video in real time(synchronous). One also needs rich management, security and policy work flows tied into these tools. Something that isn’t available with consumer based social software. Enterprise social software mimics human nature which is to share, collaborate and communicate in real time thereby trying to get the best out of us. The next couple of years promises to be an exciting journey if the potential of enterprise social software is realized. In short, social enterprise software can provide context, which translates into new levels of interaction, collaboration, and productivity. It provides personalization, information sharing, and a new way of working. And it’s setting new standards.

2 thoughts on “Enterprise Social Networks

  • Tolu Onasanya says:

    This is an exciting article which is the future of communication within the enterprise. Business owners are already gaining interests in leveraging social networks in growing their business since everyone out there i.e roads,cafes etc are always busy fiddling with their mobile devices signing into one social network platform or the other (thats a huge audience to pitch a product to) Why then cant the manufacturers of those ‘products’ leverage the same in determining how the product meets their target market. Partnering with BYOD initiative, soon our desk phones will become a thing of the past…a workplace will transition into a workspace which is free from a physical boundary. Also UC/Collaboration engineers must be at the forefront of driving this within the enterprise. I belong to the black continent (africa) Nigeria in particular and I can tell you that this idea of an enterprise social network is rapidly gaining attention here. Great article srini.

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