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Four tips to stack the deck for enterprise social media tool adoption

You can't just roll out enterprise social media tools and expect users to jump on the bandwagon. So follow these four tips to ensure widespread adoption.

Just because an organization deploys enterprise social media tools, doesn't mean its employees will flock to them. Workers must understand the business objectives and how enterprise social technology fits into the broader organizational picture, say experts, for the technology to be adopted completely.

That's why organizations looking to improve knowledge sharing and collaboration need to embrace the same measures and controls of other large-scale IT initiatives to fully gain the business benefits that enterprise social media tools promise.

"Throwing up the technology with the idea that if you build it, they will come is definitely something you want to avoid," said Charlene Li, founder of IT research firm Altimeter Group in San Mateo, Calif. "Rather, you have to build it and tell people why they should come. It's not just about making sure the technology is working, but ensuring that relationships are forming and the right conversations are taking place."

With that in mind, here are steps experts recommend to ensure the successful adoption of enterprise social software:

Define specific goals. Getting employees to effectively engage with an enterprise social networking platform -- beyond exchanging pleasantries or other non-business matters -- means implementing it to drive a specific business outcome. To that end, experts say business and IT leaders need to evaluate how social technology can help various aspects of the business, perhaps to foster innovation, for example, or to improve collaboration.

"The point is to not do social stuff in a vacuum, but to be thinking about it in terms of your business model and how it impacts specific business capabilities," says Nigel Fenwick, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.

Enlist champions and executive sponsorship. To foster the organizational change management necessary for broad-based adoption, it's important to court business champions of the technology and ensure that top management is onboard from the start. Some organizations will assemble a cross-functional social-media-focused team to drive the initiative, while others will appoint specific individuals to informally promote the technology and encourage grassroots support.

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At SAS Institute Inc., a 35-person committee with representatives from all areas of the business was instrumental in defining the requirements and business objectives for its enterprise social media initiative while also serving as the conduit to spread the word and get users involved, according to Karen Lee, SAS senior director and communications manager. Getting top execs established and visible on the Hub -- as SAS calls its social collaboration portal -- and engaging in conversation immediately also helped spark user participation.

"When the CEO or CFO gets on a social network and begins joining groups and contributing, that's really when it takes off," said Paul Gillin, a social media consultant and author of Social Marketing to the Business Customer. He said employees worry about their participation being perceived as a waste of time, "but when an exec jumps in, it's like, 'everyone in the pool.'"

Let people get personal. Many executives confirm employees' suspicions by viewing social media as a drain on productivity, so they are hesitant to let workers share non-business-related information on the company dime. But experts contend that letting employees share and engage in non-work interests not only sparks commitment to the platform, but also fosters collaboration and knowledge exchange.

"Invariably, what makes this take off is use for something other than work," Gillin said. "Don't be afraid of it being used for non-work-related uses as long as they're appropriate. People have to play in order to figure out how to apply it to work."

Measure results. As with any enterprise IT initiative, you need to attach business value metrics so you can evaluate your progress. But rather than measuring pure engagement activity -- how many posts or how many people are commenting in a particular department -- Altimeter's Li recommended linking the business value metrics to the gap that's trying to be closed. For example, if the purpose is to nurture closer ties between employees and executives or to increase cross-departmental knowledge sharing, it's the one-to-one connections that ought to be followed.

"You have to track where relationships are being created, not the number of conversations happening," she said.

While grassroots enthusiasm can go a long way in promoting the use of enterprise social software, it's not enough to ensure long-term success. The keys are enlisting some of the same tools and techniques associated with other conventional IT software deployments and carefully measured follow-up.

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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