Study: Enterprise social networks failing to meet expectations

Organizations aren't properly planning and executing the implementations of this type of software

Enterprise social networking (ESN) software can improve communication and collaboration among employees, but most companies aren't implementing and using these products properly, leading to unmet goals, according to a new study.

ESN software can help organisations by boosting information-sharing among employees and improving cross-departmental collaboration, among other benefits, but missteps in planning and execution abound, according to the Altimeter Group study "Making the Business Case for Enterprise Social Networking."

The main mistake organisations make is not defining clearly the reasons for adopting ESN software, which offers features and capabilities like profiles, status updates and microblogging popularized by consumer social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, but adapted for workplace use.

"What is the pain point? What is the problem you're trying to solve? If that's not clear, then you shouldn't be using [ESN]," said Altimeter founder and the study's lead author Charlene Li. "This isn't easy. There is no magic bullet to it. It requires a rethinking of the relationships inside your organization, and therefore a rethinking of your culture."

Altimeter, which interviewed 13 vendors and 185 end users and surveyed 81 IT decision makers from companies with more than 250 employees, found that most ESN implementations end up stuck in one or more significant roadblocks.

These include a sharp drop in interest and usage after initial enthusiasm; strong adoption in only one department; confusion about proper use of the software, due in part to a lack of executive involvement; and lack of clarity and maturity of the organization's social business strategy and goals.

Particularly surprising to Li was the finding that few organisations properly gather and analyze usage metrics for their ESN software, focusing too much on raw engagement figures and very little on stats that show whether goals are being attained and problems solved.

Companies also often fail to integrate ESN software into the existing business applications already in use by their employees, like email, collaboration platforms, CRM, ERP and office productivity suites. ESN software thus becomes yet another stand-alone tool that is under-used.

Adding to the problem is that IT decision makers tasked initially with evaluating ESN software face a very confusing market, with many offerings that often vary greatly in features and functionality.

Vendors in this relatively nascent market range from "pure play" companies like Yammer, Box.net, Jive Software and Socialtext to bigger players that are embedding ESN capabilities into broader platforms like Microsoft, Salesforce.com, Cisco and IBM.

To improve their chances of success, organisations need to define clear objectives for using ESN software, and once it's implemented, they must monitor and analyse usage in a way that gives them an idea of whether these goals are being met.

Moreover, organisations need to devote the necessary staff and resources not only to implement but also to maintain and manage ESN software, and also get executives involved in using it.

If implemented and used properly, ESN software can yield significant benefits to organizations, such as encouraging employees to share information, expertise and best practices; improve efficiency through better coordination and reduced duplication; and empowering employees by giving them a "voice" within the company.

"The organisations that have been successful at doing this are ones that are very focused on their culture: they understand it, they understand their shortcomings and are using these tools to solve these shortcomings," Li said.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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