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Skip pitfalls of enterprise social media networks by managing change

Avoid problems in enterprise social networking deployments by concentrating more on the people who will use it and less on the technology itself.

Well-designed enterprise social media programs, even when implemented on a large scale, are highly accessible and easily navigated by virtually every employee who comes into contact with them. Yet social software deployments are just as easily doomed to failure when they're not implemented and supported carefully.

Social networking managers and analysts warn that unless an organization pays close attention to change management issues related to implementing social media and makes a commitment to link a new social media strategy to its core business objectives, it might not realize the business benefits it was hoping for. As with other high-profile IT projects, a company that puts too much emphasis on the technology at the expense of people issues and potential applications is more likely to veer off course after an enterprise social media network is deployed and made available for use.

"The biggest problem is that most companies attempt social software without knowing what they're doing," said Charlene Li, founder of IT research firm Altimeter Group LLC in San Mateo, Calif. "The No. 1 thing not to do is look at the technology first. That's typically where people start, but it should be the last thing they do." Organizations instead should carefully examine their business goals and determine exactly which problems need solving to "stack the deck for success," Li said.

Another impediment to successfully implementing social media networks is misunderstanding the organization's culture or miscalculating how much or how little that culture can be changed. Many companies have a command-and-control culture, which often makes it difficult to create a social networking forum in which employees can feel comfortable about participating freely and sharing their opinions honestly without fear of negative consequences.

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"If your culture is counter to an open, collaborative environment, you're going to struggle to get a social platform to work," said Nigel Fenwick, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "A command-and-control environment can really put a damper on employees collaborating. You have to make sure your culture is aligned."

Key to that alignment is getting the CEO and other top executives on-board. If the CEO makes no bones about his feelings that social software use equates to nothing more than non-productive work time, it's unlikely that many employees will adopt enterprise social media.

At the same time, even with top management's blessing for an enterprise social network, companies can't expect that simply adding the technology will lead to broad adoption. Rather, organizations need to commit to a concerted marketing effort, including the appointment of community managers who take ownership of implementing the social media platform and communicate its value as part of a broader evangelism effort, Fenwick said.

Lack of training is another common barrier to user acceptance. Not only do employees need to be comfortable using the enterprise social networking software, but they also must have a clear sense of how it fits into their work processes and habits. For example, analytics software vendor SAS Institute Inc. in Cary, N.C., sparked the adoption of an internal enterprise social platform it calls "The Hub" by using a tool that was familiar to most users because of its Facebook-like interaction. The team in charge of the effort also made sure the social networking software was well integrated with key business systems.

"We tried hard not to make this another siloed tool or another place employees had to go to get information," said Becky Graebe, internal communications manager at SAS. "Instead, we found ways to integrate the tool into the day-to-day activities employees are already doing." So, for example, if an executive is conducting an internal webcast and inviting questions from employees, the questions and related comments now can be submitted via The Hub. The SAS social networking project team also conducts training for employees on how to use the software for collaboration, Graebe said.

Starting too big or too small also can result in a rocky beginning for a social software deployment, Fenwick said. If it's too small, there won't be enough employees active in the social networking community to make it compelling enough to attract a wider user base. On the other hand, attempting to establish an enterprise-scale social network right off the bat also can be a deterrent to success.

It all comes down to properly orchestrating the rollout, Fenwick said. "If you have 80,000 employees and you deploy it all at once to everyone without enough content, you're going to get pushback," he explained. "You need to build out the content and bring creators on-board before you bring anyone else in, all in the right sequence."

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.

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