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While social networking's success among consumers is well-documented, enterprise social media tools are still struggling to gain a foothold in organizations because of the confusion over how to best apply the technology to business operations, and concerns that it could be a drain on worker productivity.
According to industry reports, including one issued last year by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, 2011 was a milestone year for social networking. According to Pew, more than half of all adults in the U.S. regularly turn to social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to connect with family, friends and fellow professionals. In comparison, a Forrester Research Inc. report revealed that just 12% of information workers have access to enterprise social networks (ESNs), and only 8% of them use an ESN at least once a week.
Despite the relatively small user base, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester and other analyst groups are projecting significant increases in ESN usage over the next few years. For example, market research firm IDC, based in Framingham, Mass., forecasts that the compound annual growth rate in the enterprise social software category will be 42.4% through 2015, with worldwide spending climbing from $767.4 million last year to nearly $4.5 billion in 2016.
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So what's driving such high expectations for what is still a relatively immature and misunderstood technology category?
Analysts say companies are starting to recognize the potential value that enterprise social media technology can deliver, particularly around departmental and cross-department collaboration. It goes beyond simply sharing best practices within organizations to enabling employees to quickly and easily identify coworkers with particular expertise, exchange knowledge, and work together efficiently on projects.
"The primary business case for enterprise social networks is to tap into corporate knowledge," said Paul Gillin, an independent social media consultant in Framingham, Mass., and author of the book Social Marketing to the Business Customer. "The idea is there is all this expertise that you probably don't know about because it's not relevant to your job. You'd [typically] never find these pockets of expertise because there's no reason or no person to expose them."
Enterprise social media technology adapts and combines features such as employee profiles, activity streams, microblogging, discussion forums, wikis and more in an effort to help employees collaborate. ESNs support the tagging, rating and reviewing of content for workplace use with the primary goals of better connecting members of an organization and promoting knowledge-sharing between different employees and departments.
It's all about relationships
One of the keys to making a business case for enterprise social media is to stop thinking about it as a technology deployment with a focus on adoption and usage; instead, look at an ESN platform as a means of fostering new ways to communicate and forge relationships with other employees, said Charlene Li, founder of IT research firm Altimeter Group based in San Mateo, Calif.
Because ESNs enable different ways of imparting knowledge and establishing connections, they "can bridge gaps that exist in terms of information sharing and decision-making processes," Li wrote in the report Making the Business Case for Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs). "This requires first identifying a specific business gap or problem and then assessing if the relationships created by an ESN can fill the gap."
Li said in an interview that the business case for enterprise social networks boils down to addressing four problems common in most organizations:
A lack of information-sharing. Unlike other platforms that support communication, ESNs, through activity streams and notifications, enable colleagues to share content quickly and keep the conversation going back and forth without using email. Li noted that this type of communication also allows business users to add personal flair to the work environment -- a prospect that she thinks is good, not bad, for worker productivity. And it provides a bridge between team leaders and other employees and can connect coworkers on a global basis, she said.
"If you can share what you know inside trusted circles, you can get work done a lot faster and a lot better," said Li.
The inability to capture knowledge. Most workers don't sit down every day and document their expertise, but Li said that ESNs provide the opportunity to do so. By using features such as employee profiles and status updates, enterprise social media and collaboration technology makes it possible to identify individual expertise, chronicle the day-to-day activities related to a specific project, transfer knowledge, avoid duplication of effort, and improve upon organizational best practices.
Dormant projects. Thanks to the new relationships and behaviors resulting from the deployment of an ESN, Li said organizations should see more action and less inactivity on internal projects as part of the regular course of business.
The social enterprise benefits from the ability to solve problems faster and more efficiently, which ends up streamlining processes, according to Li. For example, because all parties involved in a particular project can view the ongoing activity stream, there isn't as much individual back-and-forth and, ultimately, downtime required in order to communicate, she said.
Discouraged users. Just as consumer-oriented social networks empower people to engage with one another, so too do ESNs. In addition, enterprise social collaboration technology can encourage more meaningful contributions from workers while also increasing their commitment and workplace satisfaction.
"It gives employees a voice when they never had one before," Li said. "The No. 1 motivation for people at work is not money; it's recognition, and recognition is a social act. It's perfectly suited for enterprise social networks."
Each of these issues, on its own, can sink even the best-laid plans to reach organizational goals; together they can be devastating, even for the largest companies. But with the emergence of enterprise social networks, Li and other consultants said, organizations can be well on their way to addressing communication and knowledge-sharing gaps, which in turn opens doors to more effective decision making.
Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for 25-plus years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.