Enterprise social networks are not (only) corporate communication tools

Summary: social networks are great communication tools and that’s why many organization try to find them a place in their intranet landscape. This is sometimes confusing because they are not communication tools in the usual corporate meaning, do not support the same kinds of interactions and even not always the same people. In the end, communication teams feel uncomfortable, lost between the potential of the tool and their own stakes, a field where no compromise can be made. The solution is to be found in the articulation of the User Generated Content sphere and the corporate message one because, if mixing both can cause confusion and infefficacy, combining them allow interesting synergies within what is an intranet 2.0 that addresses without any compromises the needs of all stakeholders.

I’d like to say a few words about what seems to be one of the biggest misunderstandings about enterprise social networks : their part in the corporate communication field. Since social networks are communication tools and, as such, are often managed by the communication department, there are at least two reasons for organizations to try to use this pipe for their corporate communication. What is not always successful and causes headaches.

Let’s make some things clear before starting :

• Social networks are tool allowing communication, or rather exchanges, between employees. Ok, any CEO can have his blog on the network but it’s  to have a more human voice and a less formal way of delivering his message and does not prevent the organization to keep a more formal way of doing things. The farer someone is from the top of the pyramid, the weaker the tie is between the media the person use and her position. Social networks are media for people and spread their voice regardless to their position. Proof : anyone can move to a new position and keep his media, even the CEO…

• Corporate communication is, by definition, a top-down activity that aims at evenly delivering the same message to a given population. What does not preclude to be able to start a discussion…or not.

In short, one is E2E (employee to employee) while the other is B2E (Business to employee). In the first case, people are speaking for themselves, in the other the enterprise is speaking, sometimes through someone’s voice. Even when someone speaks in the same of the enterprise because of his position, he gets the right to speak not from who he his but from the position he his while, on enterprise social networks people have the right to speak because they are employees.

Of course, corporate communication needs to become more human and conversational to improve engagement, to explain things, to get feedback… and so what ? The one does not preclude the other at all.

As a matter of fact it’s possible (and in fact it happened) to see a C-Level person using the network in such a bad and inappropriate way that he should have used the old intranet and the newsletter instead. On the contrary, nothing prevents from giving a new impulse to corporate communication, allowing comments, ratings and even the “like” that will give messages a second life and favor their spreading through people’s activity streams. This can be done on any intranet platform provided there’s a real will to do so. So, the future of corporate communication is not a matter of new platforms but of improving what’s existing, making it more social.

I mentioned the word “headache” above. That’s what often comes when an enterprise pays too many attention to a trendy buzzword and thinks that a new platform will solve all the problems. It often happens when the project is given to the communication department, because driving an E2E project when one is BE2 by nature is counter cultural and often makes the department in question go beyond its remit. What causes a couple of issues :

• BE2 vs E2E : even when, with some ruse, the organization manages to move the corporate communication to the social network, problems come when they try to stimulate the use of the tool for day to day business purpose. So they have to teach managers, business lines and , in the end, allow that 95% of the conten will come frome employees. Possible but complicated, even if an adhoc team is raised, because it’s hard for such central departments to let the baby live his own live after having brought him into the world.


• Embodiment : on a social network, people speak for themselves, not because of their position. Steve Smith, CHRO, can be in one’s network but being friend with “Human resources department” makes no sense and is even confusing. Some executives manage to handle the situation quite well but it’s illusory to think that any exec has the right mindset to forget who he his and what’s written on in business card when he interacts on the network. To end, for reasons that are easy to understand, mixing up people with positions my be dangerous…as well as some execs may need a new channel in addition to the corporate one to have different ways to deliver their message. Bottom lines : mixing channels is not a good idea.

In the end, maybe it’s the word “communication” that is misleading. We all think we know what it means…but do not use it for the same purpose. To make things clear, let’s agree (at least for this post) on a few things :

• Communication : activity consisting of delivering a message to a given population, in an uniform way. It belongs to the organization, its departments and targets employees. Takes place on the intranet, socialized or not.

• Exchanges : activity that consists of transmitting a factual information or a thought. It belongs to employees that are both senders and receivers. When an exchange looks like communication it’s often because the sender has a kind of authority and tries to makes his message more human, personalized. They take place on internal social media, within a social networking platform (blogs, microblogs etc..) or within communities on these platforms. When exchanges happen to reach an assigned goal, it’s collaboration.

• Collaboration : exchanges that happen within a given population in order to meet a goal that has been assigned to them. It can take place in spaces that can be either workgroups, communities if having the necessary features to manage a project (in other word, not only conversation features). In the future these spaces will be more and more tied to business tools.

Both are forms of communication but those who are the better at managing one are confused when asked to manage the others.

Maybe this will help to understand that even if the social approach is here to stay, it can impact many kind of interactions and many kind of tools depending on the pursued goals. That does not prevent the three from combining : the individual profile will be more and more the way to expose the directory, social spaces will be more and more tied to business tools and the corporate message can start its journey on the intranet before being broadcasted by employees on their own activity streams.

To end, while everybody agrees on the unavoidable convergence of intranets and “social”, it does not mean that social networks will replace intranets for everything. Being lucid on the mission of a communication department should lead to a specific and highly socialized space highly connected to the social network, the whole contributing to the famous “social intranet“. At least for one reason : it makes it easier for them to get the point, makes things easier to change…better something realistic that can be put at work shortly than a scary ideal that scares people and in which they don’t understand their role.

PS : Social networks are a way to do “social” but social is not limited to social networks.


Communautés, Communication, communication-corporate, communication-dentreprise, intranet, intranet 2.0, réseau social, ugc, user

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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