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Five questions to ask before investing in an enterprise social network

Your organization already values collaboration and communication, but with locations spread across the globe and no consolidated system for achieving full enterprise-wide collaboration, some changes are needed. Management is ready to deploy collaboration tools, perhaps using an enterprise social media platform to help employees share knowledge and work more quickly, efficiently and productively. Is an enterprise social network (ESN) the way to go?

To answer that question, consultants, analysts and users agree that organizations should first ask themselves a number of other questions. The following five key questions arose from interviews with collaboration experts who said they need to be addressed before taking the plunge and purchasing an enterprise social network:

1) What specific problems are you trying to solve, and how will an ESN help you do that?

Those are the first questions you should ask, said Carol Rozwell, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Organizations often think that just deploying the technology means employees will collaborate, Rozwell said, explaining her research has shown that companies must first already have internal processes for working collaboratively and a corporate culture that encourages collaboration.

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Electronic Arts (EA), a game maker based in Redwood City, Calif., but with offices spread across nine countries, implemented an enterprise-wide collaboration system based on social networking technology almost four years ago. Now, EA's global marketing team is working together and sharing best practices in a way that wasn't been possible before the system was deployed, said Bert Sandie, an operations director in the company's corporate learning and development group.

Sandie's team works to make sure that EA's far-flung workforce knows how to use the collaboration system and what it can do for them. "We do workshops where we share best practices," said Sandie, who is based outside of company headquarters at an office in Burnaby, British Columbia. The trick, however, is keeping people collaborating once they go back to their desks.

While 80% of employees use the system, half have filled out professional profiles. Sandie said that when rolling out the system, EA encouraged employees to complete their profile with incentive programs such as an iPhone giveaway. New employees are encouraged to complete profiles as soon as they walk in the door, he said. 

2) How will an ESN benefit business users? 

In order to get employees to invest the time required to learn and adopt new business processes, they have to feel it will make their lives easier, said Charlene Li, founder of IT research firm Altimeter Group in San Mateo, Calif. Users are interested in tools that will save them steps in getting things done, Li added.

"Why would I use it? How would it help me get my work done?" She said those are typical questions that prospective users of an ESN want answered. Companies need to have the answers and know how to communicate exactly how this new technology provides employees with the capabilities to get their work done in better, easier or faster ways, according to Li.

3) Will the enterprise social network serve a variety of your employees' needs?

How your sales department will use an ESN can differ from your marketing or production department's needs for collaboration capabilities, said Rozwell. Make sure what you deploy has the flexibility to address the specific issues and needs within each department, she added.

Li agreed. "In any organization you have different worker constituents and they all work a little different," she said. "They often need the same knowledge base but on an individual basis, so you need to allow for variability."

4) How usable will the ESN be?

Make sure the social network includes the applications that employees use the most, Li said. If it doesn't, she warned, they'll end up going outside the ESN so they can continue using what they are most comfortable with.

End users are savvy about and familiar with using social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn, Sandie said. As a result, they expect that social media designed for business will match the quality and ease of use of those more familiar consumer technologies. Plus, he added, employees expect an enterprise social network to continue to offer new features and to be adjustable as organizational needs change.

5) How will you measure the success of your ESN?

Many companies are still at the beginning stages of analyzing the outcomes of using enterprise social media, said T.J. Keitt, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Nevertheless, he said, it's important to measure how well the system is helping an organization resolve the business problems at the center of the initiative.

"Oftentimes, companies measure the percent of people posting three times a week," said Li. "But are they doing things of value?"

Organizations should instead measure success by determining if an ESN helps employees form working relationships that bridge geographical or hierarchical gaps, and whether the quality of the relationships improves and leads to an exchange of ideas that produce operational improvements and other business benefits, she said.

Ultimately, deciding if you should invest in an ESN really depends on your organization's needs, culture and readiness. If those factors support deploying an enterprise social network, the next step is finding the right ESN technology. That isn't necessarily a matter of selecting a particular vendor, Li said, but more about figuring out which system can best help the organization achieve its goals and objectives.

"It's less about features," Li summarized, "than about the functionality the technology allows."

Pamela DeLoatch is a freelance writer who covers B2B and technology issues. She has written articles, profiles and case studies for numerous organizations.


This was first published in August 2012

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