Why Enterprise Social Networks don’t work 80% of the time and what you can do about it

In this article I look at some common misconceptions around why enterprise social networks don’t work, and I put forward the case that more often what stands in the way of success is a lack of clarity around how social networking can help solve real business issues

Earlier in the year Yammer Co-Founder and CTO, Adam Pisoni, delivered an opening keynote about the impact of disruptive technologies on business. He argued innovative technologies are becoming so ubiquitous that there’s no longer much of a competitive advantage to just having it — and that specifically the new competitive differentiator is an organization’s ability to work differently in order to take advantage of the technology it already has.

Exactly what ‘working differently’ means will vary from company to company, depending on what it is your business does. Sadly, social networks are often put in place without any real thought going into how they are to be used. This often results in the perception that social networks are little better than a Facebook for business and largely a waste of time. The term ‘social’ in this context only compounds the issue!

Gartner prediction for 2015 isn’t easy reading either. They predict a massive 80% of all enterprise social networks will fail — that’s only 1 in 5 social networks expected to succeed. So why is the fail-rate so high? Let’s take a look…

Gartner argues the shockingly low rate of adoption is due to ‘inadequate leadership and an over-emphasis on technology’. Leadership engagement and reliance on tech are often in the frame for poor performance. And for good reason some of the time. What is often the culprit though is a failure on behalf of the business to articulate what social is going to be used for. Too often we talk about how the trend towards social is all-pervasive (‘look whats happening on the outside’ we say) and reason what’s happening outside must have a role to play on the inside. However if a business fails to articulate exactly how social networking is going improve or remove business ‘pain points’ then the network quickly loses its reason for being and quickly descends into a place to ‘say hi’ and never return!

To the question of leadership engagement, of course having your leaders understand the value social networking can bring to the company is important. But senior leadership don’t necessarily need to be actively contributing by joining in conversations and outwardly demonstrating participation. Deloitte’s CEO Giam Swiegers reads their All Company feed at least every other day to keep a finger on the pulse of his organisation, which is obviously a great thing to have happening in your network. But success isn’t reliant on the CEO or any other senior leader actively participating. This isn’t a must have for successful adoption (in fact there is a certain line of argument that says too much senior engagement can actually be fatal). Success isn’t about senior leadership participation per se, rather success lies in getting down to ‘brass tacks’ and addressing real business problems, regardless of seniority or involvement of leadership.

Much is also said about the need for an ‘open and transparent’ culture for success. Indeed it’s often said that the most effective social networks are the ones where a culture of openness is already in place. (Paradoxically, the introduction of an social network is often the the catalyst that brings about an open and transparent culture! How else did the company converse previously?) The question shouldn’t be whether we need an open and transparent culture for success, as that will come about as a by-product of having the network in place. The question needs to be ‘how is our network going to address our real business problems?’.

So, what do we need to do?

  • Strive to understand the pain points in your business. Speak to people and seek to comprehend existing processes that don’t work — understand why they don’t work and be creative about how your social network can offer a solution. Don’t try force-fitting a solution either. If your solution isn’t an improvement on what’s already in place, it won’t take off.
  • Strive to understand what people are already doing on your network (if you have one in place already). Owing to the nature of social networks they are relatively easy to start using. The entrepreneurial people in your business will already be giving it a whirl. Seek them out, speak to them, understand what they are trying to do, and help them. Chances are you have advice that can help them. You’ll also learn from them. You need to sniff out these rumblings and speak to these people.
  • Don’t worry about bringing everyone along with you. Follow the energy, some people and departments will be excited by the prospect of using social networks, others wont be. That’s fine. Embrace the early adopters and gather pace with them. Once your successes materialise, take those examples, write them up and share them back into your network. Success breeds success.
  • And remember the dancing man. That is you! You need to lead by example, and that means not just talking the talk but actively living in the social network. Plugging yourself in and ‘being everywhere’ as much as humanly possible - becoming your companies social networking go-to-person. Like the dancing man, in subtle ways people will start to imitate what you do. Give it a try, and remember you may look and feel silly to begin with, but in time a legion of followers will join in!

Gerard Richardson is a digital collaboration lead for a leading brewing company. Follow me on Twitter to hear more of my musings on enterprise social networking…