Beyond any technology challenges that crop up, the true test of whether social media can effectively boost internal collaboration and productivity comes down to a question of corporate culture, according to social networking analysts. They said organizations that foster open communication are poised to benefit, while those that haven't but now want to establish a more collaborative workforce might need to implement a change management strategy to get there.
Companies in the latter group, which historically haven't placed a priority on knowledge-sharing or might be overly stringent in managing and directing cross-departmental interaction, will be challenged by enterprise social media software, said Charlene Li, founder of IT research firm Altimeter Group in San Mateo, Calif. Enterprise social networks by nature demand a more open and community-oriented mentality to work effectively, she said.
Moreover, Li and other analysts said, companies that equate enterprise social software solely with the types of communication and personal exchanges that dominate public social networks need to alter their perceptions before they can reap the benefits of successful deployments.
"What helps an organization succeed with this [change in attitude] and social technology in general is having an organizational culture that values sharing and empowering workers -- that helps create new processes," said Li. "For cultures where the opposite is valued, this type of thing can still be done, but in a very specific way with far more constraints."
Analytics software vendor SAS Institute Inc., which prides itself in making it on various "best places to work" lists, adopted enterprise social software early last year to help augment its collaborative corporate culture. With more than 12,000 employees in 65 countries, SAS found that people often were not connecting with the right internal experts on particular topics and issues using traditional collaboration platforms, according to Becky Graebe, the company's internal communications manager. However, she added that a lot of valuable internal discussions had been taking place on open social networking forums like Facebook and Twitter.
These discussions led SAS, which is based in Cary, N.C., to embark on a strategy to tie existing communications channels such as wikis and blogs to an enterprise social media software platform. The Hub, as SAS calls its social portal, mirrors functionality found in Facebook and other consumer platforms. And rather than blocking employees from sharing personal information on The Hub or engaging in nonwork-related conversations, SAS executives encourage that kind of collaboration, too.
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"SAS has always been a supportive work environment for positive work-life balance and this tool helps encourage that," Graebe said, explaining that instead of being a distraction, the personal interactions remind employees of the power of social networking software while helping to strengthen the internal community as a whole.
"It allows us to bring in people that might work remotely in another city or another country [to discussions]," she said. "And it lets employees see fellow colleagues as a whole [people], not just in light of what they bring to the company."
Since The Hub launched in February 2011, about 9,100 SAS employees have opted in and are using the enterprise collaboration software platform. Little change management work had to be doneat SAS to foster acceptance of the technology, Graebe said, because of the existing collaborative nature of the culture at the company.
But companies also need to establish governance practices around employee use of enterprise social networking software, Li said. Unlike other information management initiatives, such as business intelligence programs, there are few established procedures around governing social media use, and there are no hard-and-fast best practices, according to Li. Though the software might be to an organization by a particular department as part of a specific project, typically IT eventually takes ownership of the technology. But while IT might be responsible for day-to-day technical administration, it's really the business side that should direct an organization's social networking strategy and cultivate user adoption, she said.
"The people who own this should be the business managers who have the greatest needs," Li said. "I've seen HR own it, marketing own it, customer service own it. There really is no one, single solution."
Unlike at SAS, organizational change management processes might be required to make a rollout successful. Dedicating a community manager or managers to promote the use of enterprise social media software and explain its business benefits can go a long way toward fostering the culture shift necessary for widespread adoption, said Nigel Fenwick, a principal analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. But in the end, Fenwick said, company executives need to start looking at social media technology as an avenue to enhance the exchange of ideas and then promote the concept inside an organization.
"We've seen evolutions happen in the past – the telegraph, the telephone, fax, email, texting -- and every time you have one of these changes in communication [technology], there are fundamental changes to the business," he explained. "Put [enterprise social networking] in the context of extending human-to-human communications and think about its potential for changing your business."
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.