An internal social network replaces nothing but improves the existing

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Summary : A social network ? Yes but to replace what ? How many times did we hear this question at the time this kind of tools was entering the corporate workspace. Considering social networks as something that will replace existing tools often lead some misuses, for things it was not designed for. As a matter of fact, enterprise social networks were more designed to make up for lacks than for improvement. Marketing approaches did not help either since saying “xxxx is dead, let’s throw everything away” was so easy. An interesting approach is to separate the social aspect from the network tool in our thoughts. The network is a tool that completes the existing, social is a conceptual and functional approach that improves the existing and creates synergies between all the tools, the resources that use them and the resources they handle.

This is a periodical question that comes like season. What ? The obsession, of wondering what part of the information system will be made obsolete and replaced by an internal social network.

Let’s sum up. We had “will ESNs replace the intranet ?”, “Will ESNs kill the email ?”. “Will ESNs replace the corporate directory ?”. “Will ECM be replaced by conversation ?”. “Will ESNs replace collaboration tools ?”. And what was the final conclusion ? “Yes…but no. ESNs are a part of a wider system that needs us to rethink the way we interact with others, with information, the notion of collaboration”. Since it appeared that adding a tool did not solve anything without having a more global approach, the the discussion moved to….replacing another tool. And so on…

As a matter of fact :

• ESNs to replace the intranet ? Except for those who have a simplistic vision of intranets or a SMB without very specific needs, ESNs only conver a part of the needs.

• ESNs to replace email ? Without a deep thinking on the way information is consumed, acted on, on the way exchanges are organized on a global scale, on the way we analyze, process and prioritize it, thinking that a social network will replace email and solve the information overload is nothing but illusory.

• ESNs to replace corporate directories ? The profile may be a very good way to display data from the directory in a richer context that is more relevant to users’ need (by the way, it’s the best way to start a project in many case, even before talking about communities, blogs etc..). But that’s only a new way to display thing, not a replacement.

• ESNs to replace ECM ? Believing that wide-scale conversations will replace everything is also a mistake. There are structural logics behind information and content management that have to stay. And what has been done before the social era has to be kept and made usable in the new context.

• ESNs to replace collaboration spaces ? Designed to manage unstructured content, ESNs as they exist on the market today quickly show their limits when it comes to needs that need to be more tightly managed and structured as well as complex projects. All the cases of communities that were nothing but redesigned spaces moved from one tool to another in order to say “yes ! we have communities” prove it seldom work and users often had reasons to complain about this move. Not because ESNs were not good tools, but because they were used for purposes they were not designed for.

In fact, ESNs are link creators. As such they only allow to manage unstructured information but this is the information that was lacking until then. Most of all it allows to locate and mobilize people in context, what is essential while the very nature of work asks employees to permanently find new combinations of people and information.

But that’s only the first step. The one were ESNs are viewed as tools only. Now, let’s think “social” as a functional layer that creates links between tools that are social by nature and the others. That ties structured and unstructured things. That brings people and information together in the context of a business case to make this famous combination possible, in the context of the case. Of course, it will need an integration effort, social intelligence functionalities to make choice and decision easier, to suggest solutions (people, content, information) to make this huge amount of resources an asset instead of a burden, and, at last, to think search as a global stake.

We should stop trying to make ESNs fit in an existing compartment where it won’t prove anything. Stop all the exhortations and peremptory discourses like “…..is dead”, stop thinking that everything is either black or white and that any new thing means throwing away what was there before.

Think global and remind that the weaknesses of what’s already there are not about how good they are at doing something but because it failed at making intangible assets usable in combinative approaches. That should also remind us that there’s still a missing link in the landscape : the melting pot that allows to handle and work intangible resources in a work context, this grey zone that exists between the data of a case, the resources needed to solve it and they mobilization in a work context : the case centric environment.

ESN tools as we know them are only the proof of the potential of social features in a restricted scope. Now, let’s think about using this potential within the whole IT sphere. In fact we should separate, in our thoughts, the words social and network.

The network, as a tool, a place in the corporate IT. It’s own place to complete the others tools and not to replace them. Social, as a functional concept has its place everywhere as a layer bridging everything together in a work context.