3 Tips for a Successful Enterprise Social Network (ESN) Pilot Program

One of the key strategies to rolling out an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) is to seed the platform before launch. This is done by getting pilot users involved before you open it up to everyone. Think of it as the soft launch before the grand opening. As many adoption specialists have pointed out many times before: you can’t rely on a “build it and they will come” strategy for deploying your ESN to your employees and simply hope they will pick it up and take off with it. That rarely works.

Instead, you need a defined strategy to introduce the platform to smaller user populations, learn from the experience, and adjust your approach accordingly. By having smaller sets of users in the ESN platform before the big launch, you are ensuring that it isn’t a blank slate on launch day.

Don’t Start Until it’s Ready

Depending on the platform you are deploying, you may be able to start on-boarding users before all features and functionality are fully available. If this is the case, you will need to pay particular attention to ensuring you have the right set of capabilities available so that your users will be able to be productive and that they will find the platform usable and useful. A second key in this situation is to ensure that your pipeline for introducing new functions is stable and predictable. Your users will notice the missing features and won’t stick around in some instances if they do not see a steady and reliable stream of improvements.

In most situations you are more likely to be deploying an out-of-the-box solution from one of the major vendors of ESN platforms available today. Again, the key is to ensure you have the right functionality available so that users will see and achieve value from the product. It is still possible to introduce features from these platforms in a metered manner and you may want to give that consideration. Just because you can give your users everything right from the onset doesn’t mean you necessarily should. A metered approach can help users learn functionality at a more controlled pace, helping you guide and direct usage in a more predictable manner.

When weighing whether or not to hold back capabilities to users, I tend to lean toward releasing the functionality. Users, even in small populations, are going to come with a range of skill levels. If you hold back features, advanced users are going to shun the platform, and that is the last thing you want to happen. You need advanced users to champion and promote what the platform can do. You can’t give a four-cylinder entry-level sedan to a race car driver and expect land speed records to be set. Limiting functionality may result in users finding workarounds and hacks to get things done. This will later be an annoyance when you release the functionality that they needed from the beginning and they have to do rework to adjust.

The bottomline is that you need to know your product and your audience. There is a tipping point where the functionality will match the needs of your user base. It is up to you to gauge where that is at for your organization.

Establish Clear Goals of the Pilot

Once you are ready to start on-boarding users, you can’t do so in an ad-hoc, haphazard fashion. You need clear goals that you are setting out to achieve, and you need a clear way to gauge whether or not you reach them. A methodical and practical approach to introducing groups to the platform will ensure they were getting the most out of it and that you are ready for larger and larger numbers of users.

I caution against setting goals based on numbers of users, page visits, updates posted, or other vanity metrics. These shouldn’t be the goal of your pilot program. They may look good on the surface (that’s why people call them “vanity metrics”), but they will not give you actionable information on whether or not you are ready for your enterprise launch.

Instead, throughout the pilot process strive to validate:

  • Tool Functionality: does it work as designed and intended; are there defects that need to be resolved? You can measure this by tracking reported defects and resolutions. You should clearly establish a threshold for the severity or number of defects that you are willing to accept prior to moving to the next phase of the rollout.
  • Policies & Procedures: does your governance framework and associated guidelines result in the intended uses of the platform? You can measure this by tracking the number of violations against established guidelines. If you are seeing a high number of violations, you need to evaluate either your policies (are they too strict, not clear, etc.) or the readiness of your user population for socially enabled tools. Cultural fit is another topic entirely, and a high number of violations may indicate you need to spend significant time understanding how an ESN will manifest your organization’s unique culture.
  • Platform & Process Scale: as more users are added does the system keep up with performance expectations and can policies and procedures be properly administered? You can measure this through monitoring system performance and utilization as well as whether or not you are meeting established service level agreements (SLAs) for performing established processes. Setting acceptable targets for performance is something that should have been completed prior to building out the system or negotiated in the contract if using a SaaS based platform. As you add more users, keep an eye on whether or not you are maintaining service levels.
  • Business Value: does the platform help workers be more productive and efficient at their jobs; does the platform yield true business value? You can measure this by talking with your users. Give surveys with questions geared to gauge perceived value. Ask for examples of ways that the platform has improved work processes. Work with users that have identified these wins, capture them in success stories, and then go out and tell these stories to others.

Your pilot rollout should be incremental: starting small and growing as you progress. With the goals listed above, you can correspond waves of on-boarding new user groups with validating the associated goal. With those four goals then you may have three to four waves of user groups that are introduced to the platform in sequence. It is imperative that you define the approach you will take as you bring on each wave of users.

Define a Repeatable Approach

For each user group you on-board on to the platform, follow a repeatable, high-touch process to ensure they are getting what they need, but also so that you can gather vital feedback to help you adjust and improve. Below is an example of what that process can look like. The key is to make sure you have a process that works for your organization and that you are approaching the on-boarding process in an organized and thought-out manner.

  • Initial Overview with Senior Leaders: during these introductory overviews familiarize the department/group leadership on the ins and outs related to your ESN roll out. During this session, identify community managers from the user group that would be critical to ensuring success. The Senior Leaders of the group will know who their go-to influencers are and this will go a long way to help establish validity of the pilot and gain buy in from leadership.
  • Ongoing Community Manager Training: Community managers are the lifeblood of any community; therefore, a key part of the process should be to ensure that they are well equipped to use the tools you are providing to them and that they are able to answer questions from their community members. Training should consist of videos as well as hands on work. Always provide a resource for them to take with them (hand-outs) or come back to (online documentation) and reference after the training.
  • Build the Community Session: Never launch empty communities! Prior to the kickoff meetings, the community managers and leaders should be brought in to interactive working sessions where they configure and setup their slice of the ESN and load content.
  • Kickoff to Department or Group: Kickoff meetings should consist of a mix of overview, senior leader endorsement, demonstration, and Q&A. Ensure that everyone leaves with a Quick Reference Guide that they can refer back to for key information such as the site URL, mobile download instructions, and tips to get them started. You should make explicit calls to action during the kickoff and give out prizes if possible for users that complete them. Give them achievable and simple activities such as updating their profile and posting in their department/group community.
  • Open Houses on Tuesdays and Thursdays: During the high-touch phase for each department, set up in common areas near their work areas every Tuesday and Thursday for a couple hours around lunch. If you can bring in pizza or desserts to entice people to stop by, you will get a much higher participation rate. Be sure to make them ask a question or give some feedback to get a slice of pizza or a cookie!
  • Community Manager Touch-points on Fridays: Each Friday schedule time to meet with all active community managers to answer questions, gauge their success or struggles, and provide tips and encouragement on getting their members to adopt and participate on the new platform. This gives your community managers a safe place to learn together and while eventually you will want to move this activity into your ESN, it helps at first to have the in-person connection.
  • Weekly Reporting: Each Monday, you should pull together key stats and metrics from the prior week and distribute to the community managers and leaders. A key to this reporting is to highlight members that are standing out to ensure they are recognized for their contributions. You should also be offering insight into what is going well and where improvements can be made. These reports most likely should contain the vanity metrics I cautioned against earlier. The difference is that you are not using them to gauge the overall success of your pilot, but rather whether or not you are getting the participation levels you need to adequately validate your primary objectives.
  • Survey: At the end of the high-touch period, typically four weeks, all participants should be sent a survey to gauge their satisfaction with the platform, the training they received, and to solicit inputs on how the ESN can be used during their daily workflow.
  • Close Out Report: Take the survey findings as well as overall metrics and package them up in a short report for department leadership. The report should highlight success stories and give encouragement on how to continue leveraging the ESN and gaining adoption. Work with the community managers to develop the close out report so that they share in the responsibility of not only the initial results but the plan and strategy going forward.

By using a structured process such as the one outlined above, you are better ensuring that each new user group starts out strong on the ESN platform. A strong start will go a long way to sustaining activity and use of the new tool.

Bonus Tip: Beware the Length of the Pilot Period

It’s too hard to only give three tips on how to get going on rolling out an enterprise social network, so I will leave you with one final bonus tip: be aware of and cautious of falling into a perpetual state of piloting. You have to launch to all of your intended users sooner rather than later. An overly long pilot period may get you stuck in a rut that you can’t get out of. Clearly establish from the beginning how long you intend to be in pilot mode.

I advise that less than six months is probably too short and more than nine is too long. It all depends on your unique organization of course and how many users you plan on rolling the ESN out to. The fewer expected users, the shorter the pilot period can be. Just don’t get trapped in a never ending pilot. Your users will become frustrated and disenchanted if you wait to long have the grand opening everyone is preparing for!


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