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Finding Value in Enterprise Social Networks

Posted by Mark Bennett on December 10, 2007


There is a lot of debate whether social networks offer any value to companies, and if so, where. Some have identified its value as a marketing and/or recruiting tool externally, but internally, many have seen them only as a drag on productivity. Nick Carr recently wrote about how companies are beginning to recognize that social network software offers insight into how informal networks within the company are actually constructed and how they get things done:

“Because they seem so natural to use, the social networks end up being incredibly sensitive mechanisms for recording the real life of a human organization…Given their benefits, I think that social networks will inevitably be adapted to corporate use…Just imagine what will happen when the informal organization suddenly becomes as visible as the formal one.”

Joe McKendrick noted on FastForward how this endorsement of social networks aligns with Andrew McAfee’s assertions about the value of Enterprise 2.0 to companies. Joe also highlights the challenges to IT presented by increasing acceptance of wikis, blogs and social networks within the enterprise. To Joe, this points to “why the future of corporate computing is informal.”

In McAfee’s recent posts, he describes a four circle model to help in thinking about how the various Web 2.0 technologies provide value to the enterprise. In it, social networks contribute value in the second from the center circle, where “weak ties” to a given knowledge worker reside. This “includes people she with worked on a project with in the past, coworkers who she interacts with periodically, colleagues she knows via an introduction, and the many other varieties of ‘professional acquaintance.’ “In another post, he points out that “SNS is a powerful tool for building, learning from, and exploiting a network of people with whom you have weak ties…”

This describes enterprise social networks as more than simply a community to hang out in as sites like Facebook and MySpace are perceived to be. They are more than just the end product of a viral marketing effort to get people to add more and more of their friends. In the enterprise, the power of weak ties that are captured in the network are of great value to the company. By facilitating finding information from previously unknown sources, employees gain enriched access to diverse perspectives, fostering innovation and reducing the likelihood of people unwittingly working on redundant efforts. Whether an enterprise social network is actually based on one of these commercial platforms or something else built around OpenSocial, the result is something more valuable to the company than had previously been recognized.

The human element of the social network rebuts the argument that they aren’t an effective use of time, because in thinking-intensive work, it is the person who has access to those who have information they need who often can be most productive. Knowledge management systems did not fulfill their promise in large part because while a lot of information is stored in documents, even more is stored in the heads of people, particularly the most up to date and relevant version. Simply searching the known universe for the required information often returns too much and sometimes the search criteria is not the best choice or we ask the wrong question. The human element can correct for that. However, sending spam emails, asking questions on forums, etc. doesn’t always offer the results we are looking for either, and are often counterproductive pursuits. It is through the filtering and forwarding mechanisms that a social network supports finding people and information to get the job done more effectively. This is done by leveraging trusted connections and human judgment and knowledge, supplemented by profile information such as expertise, projects worked on, and so forth.

There is also the employee engagement benefit to companies. Social networks often provide profile functionality that helps people to present a more complete picture of themselves to others in the network. While this might be dismissed by some as irrelevant in a work environment, it is these subtle human aspects of identity and interests, shared or not, that often help in collaboration. In geographically dispersed workgroups and in environments where workgroups are constantly reforming, this information helps to compensate for the lack of time and opportunity to otherwise build a connection and build trust with the other team members. This engagement works both ways in that not only does a team member see their colleagues in a more complete way, but each individual has the opportunity to feel a greater sense of identity through their profile as well as through their contribution of knowledge through the network. Often times, this contribution can be realized simply through connecting one co-worker looking for information to another who has it.

Finally, another source of value to the company of a social network is through the analysis of the network itself, as Carr also pointed out. A recent Fortune article highlights how, using social network analysis, companies are increasing their competitiveness and improving business results by:

  • Energizing sluggish cultures
  • Grooming leadership
  • Keeping the talent happy
  • Improving collaboration

Companies utilizing social network analysis recognize that “successful managers must understand this ‘constellation of collaborations, relationships, and networks,’ particularly in times of stress and transition.” In addition, on the engagement front, “in companies where managers worked closely with informal employee networks, respondents were three times more likely to describe their job environment as positive.”

The practitioners described in the article are doing it mostly through high-cost, time-consuming surveys and rounding up the folks within the enterprise and putting them in a room with consultants. Having a social network already in place can go a long way to capturing this information, or at least supplement the surveys and interviews, as people go about their work normally on a day-by-day basis.

Some companies are starting to see social networks less as threat to productivity and more as something that if harnessed constructively, can bring many competitive benefits. A lot of progress can be made by simply trusting employees, providing the platforms and tools, and integrating values and guidelines into their productive use.

10 Responses to “Finding Value in Enterprise Social Networks”

  1. Meg Bear said

    the ability to “Find people who know something” in addition to “finding something people know” is where the key value of the network effect comes to play. Knowledge management was intending to find you the written assets but social networks can also lead you to the human assets.

  2. […] or in the interactions of the roles. This highlights the importance of using mechanisms like social network analysis as a way to identify pivotal […]

  3. […] Organizations that I speak with are leveraging interactive blogs as an open communication vehicle between executives and their staff.  They are also beginning to adopt corporate social networks to share strengths, interests, and goals for purposes of learning informally, finding opportunites, and completing projects.  Mark talks about the value of corporate social networks here. […]

  4. […] social networks and the new web to break down the hierarchical biases so that the organization benefits from the […]

  5. […] 4, 2008 I read this excerpt from Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational that reminded me of our conversations around the impact of web 2.0 technologies on business in general and, more specifically, on […]

  6. […] into action? Are you providing the collaborative tools (like wikis, blogs, forums, and networks) to let them share their ideas, comment on other ideas, synthesize ideas, and be recognized for […]

  7. […] Several findings and ways of using the information were reported, including some brought up here previously (which also showed how enterprise social networks could help in gathering and reporting the […]

  8. […] tools that support people collaborating to solve problems and make decisions in the midst of unforeseen, new, and complex problems and […]

  9. […] (and thereby serves to motivate them to put effort into this activity), but there’s a big payoff for the organization as well with these better-built […]

  10. […] more visible and more easily acted upon and utilized. As a result, when properly used, these tools accelerate productivity, innovation and engagement. However, like any tools, used improperly, these tools can damage those objectives as […]

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