Developing Successful Enterprise Social Networking Systems

Enterprise Social Media Platforms Encourage Employee Collaboration And Learning. Successful Social Networks Are Customized To Companies' Needs And Foster Employee Engagement
By Joshua Ferdinand

Build a social networking system for employees, stand back and watch them embrace it with enthusiasm. That is the ideal, but the best laid plans can go astray. A number of companies have learned that lesson and shared their mistakes and successes when developing an enterprise social media network for employees.

The successful networks in place today promote collaborative learning and knowledge, innovation, and engagement. Because employees see value in using the social network, they are motivated to use it to drive innovation, share ideas, advance their knowledge of the enterprise, increase productivity, and manage change.

Lessons learned from real-world cases are founded on two main principles: Social collaboration systems must have the full support of senior management, and the systems need to deliver value to employees. It sounds simple, but as companies like Cisco can attest, it is not simple because there are too many factors at play at a single time.

Overcoming Complacency
Implementing enterprise social software is not as straightforward as it seems on the surface. When Cisco decided to move toward a social collaborative system, it was to create a centralized environment where global employees could share knowledge and learning. The challenges that the company had to overcome were technical and procedural as expected. However, there were also cultural challenges because people were used to working within their silos rather than across functions.

Change is difficult and people get complacent. Centralizing content made it more difficult for employees to understand how they could extract or add value to content when they were used to adding value within their functional or regional silos.

The first iteration was the Integrated Workforce Experience (IWE), integrated with the WebEx Social Platform, which offered a gateway to all information and resources related to the IT organisation. The IWE model’s four main elements include: employee connectivity; groups organized around projects, jobs, technologies and interests; a single source of data and content that is easily sharable; and a personalized home page (My View) for accessing relevant people, news, communities, applications and events.

From there a systematic approach was taken to add new user communities within the enterprise. Since then, Cisco has advanced its collaboration system in many ways, including going mobile.

Prepare the Way with a Vision
Despite Cisco's lead position in the IT industry, the company experienced issues and challenges that led to lessons the company has shared so that other enterprises can smoothly move to social collaboration networking.

The first lesson is that there must be a clear vision and a clear strategy for execution. Cisco advises companies to not migrate to the collaborative system. They need to transition through effective communication and training that is ongoing as employee communities adopt and adapt. Implementing in stages is the best approach. First implementing with employee communities that will have the greatest impact sends a signal to the rest of the organisation that this is an effective collaborative tool that can produce good results, such as advancing job knowledge and gaining access to training, corporate communications, and managers. To prevent people resistant to change from staying with legacy systems, the old systems were closed down. As is true for all initiatives, regularly measuring results to determine value added, identify challenges and maintain progress is another lesson learned.

Getting people to fully utilize enterprise social software requires recognizing the user experience and performance are closely linked. Employees expect collaboration systems to work as well as Facebook or LinkedIn. They also expect them to support a variety of applications that include mobile, real-time analytics, communication, blogging, wikis, social networking, and video streaming and sharing.

Supporting a system that works seamlessly and is reliable, so that employees are willing to use it, requires adequate investments in the IT architecture, security system, and training. To prepare for advancing technology and growing usage, the IT infrastructure system needs flexibility so it can scale up and down. Infrastructure decision-makers must consider security, applications, storage, networking, and virtualization in order to develop a successful system. Careful vendor selection is critical.

Finding the Social Path
Cisco recently partnered with IBM to develop Collaboration Solutions, a cloud-based program with real-time communications. It includes the IBM Connections Cloud, which accelerates access to the right information and expertise for better decision-making, and Cisco Spark, which redefines real-time communications with team messaging, video conferencing, and touchscreen drawing. Eventually, cognitive capabilities will be added so that structured and unstructured data is analyzed.

These collaborative systems are changing how to and who can connect internally and externally. Cisco now has a variety of collaborative tools to support knowledge sharing and learning, including Career Engagement, which increases communication among peers, leadership, and experts; engages employees in business transformation; and democratizes learning and development.

Cisco, IBM, Adobe, Unisys, TELUS and Southwest use a model that the book "The Social Employee" argues for – the path to social business lies through the social employee. Organisations must learn to communicate internally first before they can do a good job of communicating externally. Internal communication maximized for best results is collaborative. However, a lack of vision and to a large extent patience can derail the effort to create a collaborative and learning culture which utilizes technology. Even Cisco employees needed time to adapt to a new collaborative system and training to understand how utilization benefits them personally and the organisation as a whole.

Where are the Leaders?
There is another reason why corporate social networks fail to reach the level of usage the company envisioned. Top managers do not participate.

If senior leadership does not see enough benefits to using the system, why should their employees? If top managers are not using the system, they are not listening to employees, are not interested in the innovative ideas that flow from collaboration, and send a message that engaging with employees is not important.

Leadership needs to communicate the vision of a knowledge and learning culture, and use the social networking tools to engage employees. The system does not have to work perfectly from day one. Improving it over time is part of the learning process.