Businesses focus too much on enterprise social networks

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In brief: enterprise social networks mobilize attention and effort. But by focusing too much on social networks – and only on them- they forget that they’re only a recipients whose value comes from they periphery through flows of information that are born and finish elsewhere.

Even if enterprise social networks projects are multiplying, if everybody talks about it, we can see that the road to an optimal use is not a nice journey neither that that results often meet expectations. Maybe it’s a matter of maturity. As we’re leaving the era of dreams we realize that we’re far from the self-fulling prophecy and most of all we admit – even with regret – that no tool is a magic wand that will spare from a deeper work.

But one of the bigger barriers to success is, as paradoxically as it may look, that businesses focus too much on social networks while being guilty of overlooking what’s happening around.

Enterprise social networks as often considered as  independent ones, businesses that implemented one are observed, and castles are built in the air are built to guess if and how they’ll replace the other elements of the work environment. By so doing we make mistakes on their true nature and stakes.

Enterprise Social Networks : IS’s isolated islands

Just a little history lesson to begin. When we started talking about enterprise social networks, 5 or 6 years ago, the first matter was to know what it was and how we’ll use it. The answer to the first question was “the opposite of everything you have right now”. Understand : a social network is about people and conversations, no documents, workflow, process etc… It was the incarnation of a new world, flat, unstructured, in which the remnant vestiges of the collapsing old world were not allowed.  The answer to the second was obvious since we had the answer to the first : by creating communities and stimulating conversations since it was the only things that could not be done elsewhere. So social networks started to begin community factories to such an extent we even saw vendors having community-based price lists (imaging the sales person being asked “how many communities did you sell this month ?”) and businesses deploying such solutions for the only purpose of building communities.

That’s how social networks ostracized themselves in an obscure zone of the information system because addressing activities at the periphery of work and grabbing the attention of the only people having enough energy and will to use them on top of their work.

Then some saw the limits of such dogmatic approaches. In fact the real need was to fluidify exchanges on some matters, “objects”, “events”, and not only communities. The need for networking and having conversations, finding information or a solution to a problem is triggered by a stimulus which can happen anywhere but in the social network (most of all when it’s disconnected from business tools and flows).

Enterprise social networks live on external stimuli

By definition an enterprise social network is a dead empty container. Life appears and grows depending on the stimuli in question. Then 3 options (co)exist.

– hope that users will leave their word processor / spreadsheet/ business tool / website every time a stimulus happen to come and report it in the social network, in the right space, with the right people and that these people will find time to come and answer.

– as the previous option is quite uneasy, make the social network generate its own activity. That’s the case when they go beyond what’s necessary in the community approach : they try to generate a critical mass of activity in the network but outside of the flow of work.

– take the social network for what it is : a confluence point. What implies to design it and its use regarding to people’s work and other tools, not like an isolated island. Think that 90% of use cases will have their origin outside of the social network.

One the biggest mistakes made these last years was to focus too much on the second option while hoping in secret that the first will happen but without doing what was necessary.

Focusing on social networks and overlooking their very nature often lead to failure. By devoting them a lot of time and energy and neglecting what was happening at their periphery, businesses turned social networks into tools that have to find their own purpose outside of any build approach of information flows and work.

A social network generating its own need goes round in circles

Enterprise social networks have very few to learn from Facebook and its fellow services but their’s something should have been quite obvious too them : these networks only live because they allow social activities (conversations, sharing, decision, action) on an external stimulus that has been imported in the network seamlessly. In this case it’s often articles, events, songs, videos etc imported from other platforms. In the workplace it will be most of time business content and event. Prevent Facebook from “sucking up” these external content to live on its own internal stimuli only and you’ll see how long it will take before it dies or at least, becomes useless for 90% of users.

Enterprise social networks are not a destination but a crossroads, a roundabout. Information come from somewhere else, is handled in a social way there and the goes back elsewhere. “Elsewhere” is all the peripheral tools and channels, from the intranet to instant messaging, including business applications, ECMs, email etc. Roundabouts has been built without paying any attention to the roads they were connected to. Sometimes without being connected to any road, what explains that the only possible behavior was to goes round in circles.

It also applies to use cases that are built to assess and pilot such tools. Most of times they are internal to the network, what is a biased view of reality. A real use case starts in a third part tool, allows social handling then, if needed, sends information back in the tool.

A central tool lives on its periphery only

Enterprise social networks have a calling to be at the center of the work environment, at the center of work. But there’s no center without periphery. Thinking a center without its periphery is locking users into fruitless logics, make them goes round in circles and, in the end, raise new problems without solving anything.

When rolling out an enterprise social network, please take one’s blinders off and instead of looking at nothing but it leave it in peace and look around it : that’s were its usefulness and value lies.

Rather than an isolated tool, social networks are the central and pivotal point of a digital workplace, a social intranet, an intranet 2.0. Separated from the other parts of the systems they will only be empty shells that will have to generate its own need, most of times artificially, at the opposite extreme of people and businesses’ actual needs.