Exactly what is an enterprise social network (ESN)? The meaning of the term has been morphing the past few years.

Originally it was used in the context of social media for corporations, but more recently it’s being used for the various kinds of informal communication in large companies. Messages range from things like, “Check out this interesting article before today’s meeting” to “We’re ordering out for pizza; who wants in?”

Consultant Jane McConnell’s survey The Workplace in the Digital Age found that more than 60 percent of organizations have implemented ESNs in at least part of the company.

“An ESN is an internal workplace that streamlines communication among co-workers,” writes Jess Fee in Mashable. “They give employees a sense of online community and help forge connections between departments, especially within larger corporations.” These networks can also be used by human resources departments for employee recognition, writes Nick Martindale in HR.

There are numerous programs out there, each with pros and cons depending on individual company needs. What is interesting about ESNs is how they’re being used conceptually.

ESNs are serving a complementary role with corporate intranets, though they should not be seen as replacing them, cautions Carrie Basham Young in CMSwire.

  • Intranets allow leadership and management to push content to employees in a streamlined manner. Small groups of employees use these tools to disseminate officially curated information to the masses of the company.
  • ESNs, on the other hand, are technology conduits through which human relationships flow. “They are designed for any and all employees to connect with people first, and information second,” she writes. “The information one sees inside the network varies based on one’s relationships, interests and subscriptions to content/groups. From the employee perspective, the ESN is a real-time stream of opinions, ideas, conversations and free-form dialogue.”

Moreover, people are asking the wrong questions in the intranet vs. ESN debate. The questions are focusing on the technology platform rather than on the people and the work.

“What we should be asking is, what do people need to get work done?” writes Oscar Berg in CMSwire. “Focus on the work, not the tool. The conversation needs to turn to what digital services do people need to get their work done, and how do we design these tools to fit people’s work styles and working conditions?”

In other words, “Look at the intranet as part of an organization’s left brain hemisphere and ESNs as part of the right brain hemisphere,” Berg writes. “We need both.”

In today’s increasingly flat organizations, ESNs also promote participation regardless of the employee’s position in the corporate hierarchy, research finds. “ESN lead to more egalitarian and democratic structures of participation,” notes Kai Riemer, an associate professor at the University of Sydney Business School, in the report ESN communities–built from top to bottom, which examined the use of ESNs in Deloitte.

Notably, ESNs are more likely to be successful when higher-level employees use them, but that influence decreases over time. Moreover, while early adopters have more influence at the beginning, that influence also decreases over time, Riemer notes.

Riemer researched the sort of information people exchange over ESNs, and found that the most useful categories were idea and input generation, problem-solving, and update and event notification.

“Users see ESN as a space for sharing information with other users, for discussing ideas and for reading and obtaining information that feed into the users’ work processes,” writes Riemer. “This speaks to the usefulness of ESN in the context of knowledge work and for knowledge exchange.”

That’s not to say, however, that the so-what-are-you-doing-this-weekend chitchat doesn’t fulfill a useful role as well. “The social aspects are necessary because they underpin the ESN community, without which there wouldn’t be a useful space for information sharing to begin with,” Riemer writes.

On the other hand, ESNs also have some perils. Because they contain valuable corporate data, if they aren’t properly locked down, they can be a security risk. It’s a good idea to ensure that ESN databases are encrypted, writes Dom Nicastro in CMSwire.

In addition, companies need to consider how messages sent with an ESN can be retained and retrieved in terms of electronic evidence and ediscovery.

If your company is being sued, for example, it could be held liable for not saving or producing ESN records that are deemed relevant to the case. This is particularly true in highly regulated organizations such as financial services, writes Christine Parizo in TechTarget.

The biggest challenge—which seems ironic in this era of Facebook and Twitter—can be getting employees to use them. Without a critical mass of employees using the system, it tends to atrophy, Martindale writes.

What users need, he continues, is a serious reason to use the system, such as sharing information and reducing email. In addition to having senior leadership participate, users can also be encouraged to use the system through gamification features such as earning prizes, he writes.

And just remember, the most valuable use of an ESN is to send around articles (hint, hint) you find interesting.

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