How to Succeed in Adopting Enterprise Social Networks

July 1, 2013
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In part three of Enterprise Social Networks we’ll look at enterprise adoption and some of the results of successfully implementing and using ESNs. Adoption is a bit of a contentious term since there’s a big difference between a company “having” one or more ESNs and actually “using” that network. I will concede that there are many ESNs that have been deployed in companies that are not really being used, or have limited use.

In part three of Enterprise Social Networks we’ll look at enterprise adoption and some of the results of successfully implementing and using ESNs. Adoption is a bit of a contentious term since there’s a big difference between a company “having” one or more ESNs and actually “using” that network. I will concede that there are many ESNs that have been deployed in companies that are not really being used, or have limited use. That said though, I refuse to buy in to what I often hear from “experts” that ESNs have failed and do not offer any real value. Based on survey data and many case studies and interviews I will tell you without reserve, there are many ESNs in widespread use that are returning value to the companies and employees. The biggest difference between having an ESN that’s in use versus one that isn’t, is most often tied to the effort put into implementing it and whether it was tied to specific use cases or not. In other words just installing an ESN tool and telling your employees to use it isn’t sufficient to get  actual employees use.

First a few numbers. Based on a survey that we (IDC) took out of the field in February of this year, in north America 79% of the companies surveyed had already deployed an ESN, and almost 30% reported having more than one (that number is, I suspect, low by a factor of 2 or maybe more, based on experience). We haven’t done a survey for the rest of the world recently, but based on current use patterns we are seeing European adoption increase quite a bit, especially in Western Europe. ESN’s really started in North America so European adoption is likely a few years behind. Asia, which is really not a homogenous region, has mixed adoption by country. In Australia and New Zealand, for example, use is growing, while many of the rest of the Asian countries are still quite early in experimentation. 

As I said earlier, the real key to adoption and use is tied to the change management efforts during the implementation and to the specific use cases. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t companies where the ESNs grew organically, that’s far from reality. There are many examples where the ESN started as a grass roots effort and took hold. Most of those examples though, are in companies where the employees brought in an ESN tool to solve an important / significant problem for which the tool was uniquely suited. That however, just reinforces the concept that when the ESN is tied to a specific use case or problem, it’s much more likely to be adopted and used by the employees. ESNs are not only being used by employees though, there are some strong use cases that involve other constituents like customers and partners. I won’t go through use cases again though, you can see this post for more information.

Looking at results is an important part of increasing adoption of an ESN tool. Success breads more success when it’s related to ESN use. There are many positive outcomes that we have seen from using an ESN tool, at least when there is widespread adoption. Initially positive results are usually linked with the specific use case or cases that were used as a part of the rollout. If the tool is rolled out to facilitate the strategic planning process, for example, companies report things like getting more people involved and participating in the planning process, getting through the process more quickly and with more successful outcomes, etc. When it’s innovation management companies report everything from getting more and more relevant product ideas into and through the product development process, increased customer engagement (retention), faster time to market and ultimately increasing revenues from new products. Project mangers report an increase in successful projects, that is projects that meet expectations and are on time and under budget. In all the use cases that I’ve observed I’ve seen some kind of positive outcome when the ESN is integrated into the routine workflow. There are many positive impacts of building and operating in a collaborative work environment that are difficult to measure.

The ultimate metric, productivity, is a bit more complicated and maybe a bit risky. Based on the results I’ve seen in companies I’d say that employees are more productive when using an ESN tied to a specific use case, implemented correctly and integrated into the workflow. Measuring that can be complex, particularly in isolating productivity gains to one factor like the ESN. Mobile, cloud, improved UI, etc. can also increase productivity, so when productivity increases how do you attribute it to a single factor? That said though, in a survey we did a couple of years ago, employees reported an increase of productivity between 11-30% by using an ESN. There are all sorts of issues around self reported metrics, but still, I think it’s an indication that employees believe (and likely are seeing) that ESNs do increase productivity.

That’s the current state of ESNs. The technology is still fairly new and there are new use cases and outcomes happening regularly of course. The more the tools are implemented correctly and the more they become embedded in the workflow of the employees, the more I think companies will see the value of the tools. There are also many new techniques that are being used inside ESNs to increase use and adoption, for example gamification, as I wrote about in this series (part 1, 2, 3). I’m always looking for new case studies and use case examples so feel free to leave them in the comments.

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