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ESNs to drive positive changes in the workplace

Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) are a new and emerging trend, with more companies building their own social networks inside the company firewall. Elouise Brennan of OBS shares insight and advice on how to make the best use of ESNs. 

With workplaces becoming more global, more virtual and more dispersed, more companies are warming up to the idea of developing internal social networks. ESNs have the same advantages of mainstream social media channels, like easy access to data, collaboration and internal communications but are limited to business related activity.

“Both personal social networking and enterprise social networking are focused around communication and sharing of knowledge. The key difference is around context. [Social networks like Twitter and Facebook] is about a personal context, where people share personal content and have personal goals that they’re looking to achieve,” said Elouise Brennan, Portals Practice Lead, OBS.

“Whereas an Enterprise Social Network is really about the business context. It’s about sharing internal information, working out ways to improve work practices, and sharing structured knowledge from staff.”

How ESNs are different to mainstream social media channels

The widespread adoption of social media has led to more employees expecting to be able to communicate and work collaboratively via social networks. But mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter pose a number of problems:

1. Distraction

Without a doubt, if we open up our personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, something will catch our eye and we’ll be tempted to engage in conversations unrelated to work. Time will fly by before our eyes and we’ll realise how unproductive we’ve been. A lot of employers have banned social media usage in the workplace for this very reason, but this also means that they miss out on the benefits that social media conversations can have on a business.

2. Blurring the line between work information and personal information

Work information and personal information should be kept separate the same way we need to keep our work life and home life separate. It’s a matter of organisation and management, and when we pile all our information in one social media channel, it becomes cluttered and difficult to sort through. ESNs provide centralised and organised access to business related information.

3. Less discipline

We all behave differently in different environments. In the workplace, there are unmentioned rules of conduct that we’re all familiar with – very small things like your posture and tone of voice when addressing someone higher up in the professional food chain. The problem with using mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the workplace is that over time they have become a personal environment for us, a place we feel open, and perhaps a little too comfortable. Without constant conscious effort, we may let loose and appear unprofessional in our interactions via mainstream social media.

Benefits of using ESNs

ESNs offer benefits such as improved productivity, faster internal communication and easier collaboration both within and between enterprises.

report by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) states that, “Two-thirds of the value creation opportunity afforded by social technologies lies in improving communications and collaboration within and across enterprises.”

MGI estimates that the average interaction worker spends 28 percent of the work week managing emails and 20 percent searching for internal information or tracking down colleagues who can help with specific tasks.

With internal social networks, ‘messages become content’, ‘a searchable record of knowledge’ that increases efficiency and productivity through faster access to information.

The greater flexibility that workers are offered when engaging and collaborating with each other via ESNs means that time and location is no longer a hindrance – especially for businesses collaborating across different cities and countries.

“The key benefits that we’re starting to see at the moment is really around how organisations are starting to structure themselves. More and more, we’re seeing organisations where staff or teams are working in different locations. There are international time differences between teams. Staff are working from home more so there’s greater flexibility with their personal lives. Through Enterprise Social Networks, people are able to build relationships without face-to-face meetings that we were previously needed. It’s about building a culture where people might not necessarily be in the same office,” said Brennan.

Factors to consider before implementing ESNs

1. Culture fit

If sharing information and collaborating is not already a significant part of a business, then ESNs will not provide any benefits. It is designed for businesses that depend on interaction between workers.

“If an organisation is very closed, where [people] don’t share a lot in their day-to-day work, you can’t just give them an online tool and expect them to use it. It really needs to be a culture that fits that kind of sharing mentality already and for them to just have another technology to share and communicate through,” said Brennan.

2. Past experience in social networking

Although social networking has become a global phenomenon over the past decade, it doesn’t mean that everyone has adopted it in their day-to-day lives. Introducing new tools requires educating those who have to use them.

“You can never assume that all staff have experience with social networking tools in their personal life. When you’re implementing a social tool in an enterprise, you really need to think about what level of experience people will be able to have with these tools. Would they be able to pick it up straight away? Will they need support in understanding how to get benefits from these tools?” said Brennan.

3. Understanding the difference between personal social networking and business social networking

If workers use ESNs the same way they use Twitter and Facebook then it defeats the entire purpose of the tool – which is to limit social networks to business related activity.

“You need to have [your workers] understand that in a business context, it is about sharing information and building relationships with staff members, not fun, personal information that you would share on personal social networks,” said Brennan.

Key points to remember when building an internal social network

1. Focus on business objectives, not on technology

ESNs should not be used merely for the sake of implementing an exciting new social technology. There should be a clear purpose that is identified well in the early stages.

“[Businesses] need to shift their focus away from the technology. Really what they should be focusing on is delivering their business objectives and finding places where social technologies would really benefit the organisation in some way. Having a clear understanding of why you are delivering a social network, I think is absolutely crucial. Not only do people understand why you’re doing it but are much more likely to engage with it,” said Brennan.

2. Executive support and encouragement for ESN users

While some workers will have a natural affinity to using social technologies, other may need a push.

“There are obviously going to be people in the organisation who are naturally interested in this kind of technology or this kind of business tool. By having them, support them and drive them, will really help people understand how they can use the tools and what they can get out of them,” said Brennan.

“We also highly recommend executive support. Executive support in an organisation is absolutely essential, not only in the way that they’re just verbally endorsing the solution, but also in terms of actively engaging with the social network, encouraging staff to communicate through the network.”

3. ESNs not an end point, but a tool to help reach business goals

ESNs won’t do the work for you – but it will help you accomplish goals more efficiently.

“Enterprise social networks should not be used as an end point. It really is a stepping stone in a journey to achieve effective knowledge-sharing and management in an organisation. It’s essential to deliver it correctly and communicate key benefits,” said Brennan.