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Enterprise Social Networking - What is it?

What is Enterprise Social Networking?

As enterprises evolve to adopt new working paradigms, new ways of communicating and collaborating have been necessary to keep in pace with the world of social media.

Enterprise social networking (ESN) enables teams and team environments to stay competitive and collaborative while remaining relevant in today's socially-connected life.

Enterprise social networking brings the power of social networks into the workplace -- while at the same time increasing business value through collaboration and communication.

However:

  1. How do enterprise social networks work?
  2. What business value and impact do they bring to businesses?
  3. Typical use cases
  4. The elements & features
  5. Emerging trends and a look to the future
  6. Best practices and keys to success

How "Enterprise Social" Works

Enterprise social networking enables employers, employees, business partners, and even customers to plug into "conversations" either through status updates, commenting, or simply following up on activity streams. These platforms can be used for real-time collaboration where users can post and follow up on progress reports, chats, and group contributions on projects.

Communication on enterprise social networks can both be vertical and horizontal.

A business partner can initiate a conversation and allow others to contribute their opinions and content and add to the value of the topic under discussion. It can also be horizontal where users contribute and expand on the topic and let others engage horizontally as well on what each user has to say.

Enterprise social networks can also include spaces where employees and partners can create knowledge bases in form of wikis and post blog posts in their areas of expertise. Users can even invite specific individuals or groups to contribute and share in the discussion when necessary. Users can stay updated via the activity stream and follow specific conversation streams.

Similar to public social networks, users can also usually create and manage task lists and to-do's, update their calendars, follow friends, "like" and share content, as well as receive notifications when things happen that are most important to them.

Business Impact & Value

Social tools have always been known to encourage and promote sharing.

In enterprises, knowledge sharing within departments and among teams can have a far greater impact on efficiency and job satisfaction than the more traditional email approach. With almost anyone within the enterprise becoming a content creator and distributor, knowledge sharing becomes part of an organization's culture, enabling it to capture valuable knowledge from within and share it with less experienced employees.

Ongoing product development and innovation is key to keeping a business afloat. However, it is not always easy, and cheap, to keep innovating and still produce a great product or service.

Customer insights into how a product should "look" or "function" is key to keep on building great products -- and enterprise social networks are positioned to collect this kind of data. Such networks can plug into social media and other connected customer end points to monitor brand conversations, both from within and beyond the company walls. Collecting such data using the more formal research methods, such as focus groups, would prove too expensive for most enterprises and may not always be accurate.

The ultimate value of enterprise social networking tools lies in communication.

Businesses now have a light-touch manner of communicating, which is typical of social media. This direct communication enables for a more rich and natural dialogue that has a long-lasting effect. Communication within an enterprise is also enhanced as it offers a much better way of disseminating information, best practices, expertise, and other valuable company information at a faster rate. It is even possible to post questions for further clarification on matters or to introduce an idea not covered.

Use Cases of Enterprise Social

We would be right to say that businesses are just only beginning to understand the value of social technologies to create value. The potential to improve communication, collaboration, and knowledge sharing is largely untapped in many organizations.

Below are just a handful of examples of the typical use cases for enterprise social networking software.

Team Collaboration on Projects

Whether you are coordinating a product launch, preparing a prospect presentation or finalizing on a report that needs to be presented to management in a few days, enterprise collaboration software can help you get all this done. With ESN it is easy to collaborate with colleagues and direct conversations around specific topics.

This is especially the case when you are working on a short-term project and you need expert input from colleagues. Simply "invite" them into a "space" and brainstorm ideas together.

Social Intranet

Since ESN encourages and thrives on informal conversations. It is great for building relationships among large groups of people. This may be the case where workforce needs to be integrated after a merger or acquisition, or where corporate policies need to be clarified. It is offers a strategic opportunity and atmosphere when you need to introduce new personnel to the team as well.

Social Customer Service & Extranets

When launching a product or service or conducting research, it may be necessary to collaborate with an external team. Such shared projects require a controlled environment in order to monitor and offer direction, and avoid trading or leakage of company secrets. Typical use cases can be while working with PR firms and contractors.

ESN software offers a collaborative space that is controlled while offering enough flexibility to get the job done. Teams can share ideas, transfer files, and interact in real-time. Flexibility can be scaled based on needs and requirements and when the project is complete, such spaces can be archived and used as knowledge bases for similar projects.

Customer support can also be implemented on ESNs. Customer care representatives can use the internal network to leverage knowledge while the public-facing part of the ESN can be used to offer support from the inside. Since only one system is used across, both within and beyond, there are no steep learning curves and users will feel more comfortable offering support. Some systems can even integrate with ticketing and advanced customer care systems improving efficiency and speed.

Community

By creating branded spaces where people linked by common interests and responsibilities can discuss and share knowledge, organizations can create more value from within by such things as increasing efficiency and faster time-to-market through tapping this tribal knowledge.

Communities also create a sense of belonging where employees can gather and build relationships. These relationship-building spaces eventually translate to lower turnover and increase job morale, which means employees are more productive and happier.

Ideation, Crowdsourcing, and Innovation

Social collaboration spaces have the power of bringing large groups of people together who did not have pre-existing common interests and roles. When these groups of people come together, their collective intelligence can be used to create better products and services, improve existing processes, and sometimes, introduce entirely new products and service offerings. ESN spaces are usually the foundations of innovation and idea generation.

The Elements & Capabilities of Enterprise Social

In order for any ESN offering to be of value, it needs to be packaged for use by communities, networks, and support teams. Specific functionality as it relates to usage by specific users must be embedded into the software.

People Directory & Profiles

Similar to a public social network, ESN software needs to include a directory of users and user profiles. You should be able to view users’ names, ranks, work information, community info, personal, and business information. Users’ profiles should also include their activity stream, relationships with others, spaces they manage or participate in, and blogs or wikis they have authored.

The more you can drill down into a user’s profile, the more value you can gain. Such insight can offer you a glimpse into their expertise, their interests, and their roles within an organization.

Activity Streams & Notifications

Activity streams allow you to get an overview of your activity without having to go into the details. It will show you content you have authored, your comments history, and the activities of others you are following.

Notifications, on the other hand, are alerts that the system deems might be of interest to you. These may include updates by the community manager to blogs you have written, comments on your content, assigned projects, and approvals to join collaboration spaces where this is demanded.

Groups & Workspaces

These are restricted sections or spaces where specific conversations are taking place. They could require membership approval, or they may be open to anyone. Groups and workspaces are used to direct conversations and manage content development. Teams can collaborate on content creation and projects, and ideas are freely shared among members.

Content Creation & Discussions

In order to encourage content creation and discussions, ESNs have wikis and blog sections where users can write and publish content and let others view and post comments on it. Blogs and articles are generally rich in knowledge and when they are well organized, they can be used to tap into employee expertise and interests without attracting attention to individual contributors.

Discovery & Filtering

In order to be of benefit, any created content within workspaces needs to be searchable and having a search feature or a wiki index is essential. As ESN adoption increases within an organization, you can expect more users to contribute content and over time, locating information can prove difficult.

By tagging and grouping content, it becomes easier to filter and discover content across the ESN. Some ESNs will even allow you to search content by author, date, or group affiliation.

Conversations & Commenting

Whenever you post a blog or a wiki, readers will likely add their opinions or elaborate on an idea further. The conversations that take place within these spaces can add immensely to the value of blog posts.

By enabling commenting on authored posts, conversations can be extended beyond the article or post. Anybody following the conversation will also be updated on their activity stream whenever a comment is posted and they can likewise contribute their opinion on the topic.

Integration Capabilities

For an ESN to be of real value, it needs to work with existing CRM, ERP, and other systems already in place. APIs are key in this area as they enable the ESN to scale beyond just offering a closed social system of interaction.

By integrating social software with other third-party work applications, this increases the engagement level among end users ultimately improving and increasing communication and collaboration within enterprises.

Functional Day-to-Day Applications

Most ESN offerings include a bundled list of applications ranging from task management, calendar, file & document management, to case & ticketing, to-do lists, and chat applications. The list of what is possible with integrated applications is only growing. As a result, most organizations have replaced standalone applications like emails and gone straight to using these bundled offerings.

It is even possible to customize and enable or disable some of these applications among selected users. This flexibility makes ESNs appealing to small, medium-sized, and large enterprises.

Emerging trends

The public social tools are expanding, and they are changing how we collaborate and communicate. Each of these networks represent different behavior and enterprise social tools are no different.

Changing corporate cultures

Social technologies are changing the corporate culture of companies regardless of size. CEOs are already embracing social and are able to get close to their customers and this in turn increases their agility and momentum. By sharing information in different ways and using things like crowd sourcing, things are being done in a much different way.

Social technology as the new Intranet

When you think about it, email locks down information. Social, on the other hand, gets such information across increasing collaboration and accelerate product innovation. A lot of organizations are realizing this and are spending more and more on social software as a stepping stone away from email. Such deployments are also being driven by employee collaboration, idea generation, and efficiency in locating people and resources.

Social technology standards come to the enterprise

Social businesses activities are no longer isolated. These tools are now being integrated via an activity stream where the user is always in context. We are now seeing social APIs and gadgets running within social containers and running in multiple places. All this was only available on the consumer web, but we are now seeing its employment on enterprise social tools.

Social Meets Mobile

As the BYOD phenomenon continues to take hold of companies, mobility in enterprise social tools is becoming trendy. The explosive mobile growth with tablets and smartphones is helping companies cut down on infrastructure and save money, in addition to making employees happier when using their devices. Anytime anywhere access to information is trending and employees are demanding that.

Social technology drives business

Many stand out organizations are encouraging employees to use social both inside and out of their firewalls. Many businesses using web 2.0 technologies are seeing high revenues, better knowledge access, and lower costs of doing business. As employees engage with customers and business partners, they are creating massive amounts of data which they are using to increase value.

Keys to Success

In order to be competitive, it is important to consider what is working in the social enterprise environment and see how you can implement it in your organization. Taking a creative step is also important in order to map these technologies to move to the next level.

  • Set up social guidelines, business etiquette, and compliance / governance for responsible use of these social tools.
  • Recruiting early adopters who are already socially active will also help in accelerating adoption.
  • Socially enabling your existing solutions and investments can also dramatically increase adoption rates.
  • Don't build social as silo, but instead, bring social to the user and focus on open standards to drive enterprise innovation that leverages the rapid innovation on the public web.

Another recommendation is to design your enterprise tools with mobile in mind. Embrace and plan for BYOD and don't leave mobile as an afterthought.

Consider also how you can leverage big data and make sense of it using analytics. In addition, build a bridge by letting your employees become a voice for your organization and brand.

When it comes to social enterprise software, the key is to integrate with the intranet, integrate it with email and messaging, and integrate with business apps that you are currently using to streamline your business.

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Tim Eisenhauer
Written by Tim Eisenhauer

Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.

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