Mobile Killed Enterprise Social Network Star
Have you ever accomplished something absolutely amazing, only to be shocked by the unintended consequences months or years down the road? “I didn't see that coming” is the battle cry of the high-achieving enterprise employee who creates better than expected outcomes that give unannounced and unwelcome life to sneaky consequences that are byproducts of any successful program.

Community managers and enterprise social evangelists, it’s time to prepare yourselves for the imminent arrival of the unintended consequences of your highly successful enterprise social networks. You labored for years to convince management and IT that a secure, open forum would improve employee communication and culture. That it would be a conduit for change. And community manager, it has. You did a great job.

Too good of a job, in fact.

You see, I predict that within the next 6-18 months, the most successful enterprise social networks at companies large and small will begin to eat away at themselves, slowly dissolving some of the connective fabric that had once woven a newly networked enterprise. The culprit? Manager Mary in the Conference Room with her Android -- and the accomplices -- her team of global employees in their respective work environments with their mobile devices of choice. That’s right -- personal mobile device usage is going to pull users away from their formal collaboration hubs.

Enterprise social software evangelists, you’re doing too good of a job, and the tremendous effort you've put into creating a networked corporation is going to give rise to the era of the Comfortable Mobile Employee -- the employee who is so well connected to his teammates that he shuns formal channels of communication whenever possible, using a mobile device and personally controlled mobile apps to perform basic work functions, friendly communication and administrative activities.

Here’s my perspective on the shift that we will see toward mobile communication at the expense of an enterprise social network -- the unintended consequence of creating a highly connected workforce through centralized social technology.

Designed to Connect

In the “early” days of companies launching enterprise social networks, some of the most common purposes for the network were to connect employees, humanize the company directory, build rapport and trust, and give life to the voices only heard on the other end of the phone line. Teambuilding was key, and giving people the chance to meet each other was crucial. Social networks deployed behind the firewall did just that, as evidenced by case studies from SAS (using Socialcast) and LivePerson (using Jive).

Connecting Begets Friendship and Informal Ties

Enterprise social networks are doing exactly what they were designed to do: employees are strengthening their ties with each other after discovering shared interests and goals. But it’s almost working too well. Employees using social networks are becoming friends who accept technology as a basis for their communication. They built trust and their relationships due to social technology, and they’re willing to maintain these new human relationships via social technology when they can’t meet in person. Informal ties in the workplace are stronger than ever due to the tremendous power of enterprise social networks.

The Unintended Consequences: We Don’t Need the Social Network!

As employees strengthen personal bonds and become more comfortable with each other, they will begin to shun the network that brought them together. There’s going to be less of a reliance on the network for communication since they’ve already developed relationships outside of this community. Employees will lower their guard, they will become more colloquial and they will move much of their communication to personal mobile devices over text or chat apps.

Because of this new format, a shift will occur -- employees will feel like the discussions they’re having with their colleagues on their mobile devices belong to them -- and not to the company that employs them. As conversations blend work and personal topics, as grammar falls to the wayside, and as short bursts of micro-sentences texted via iPhones and Androids are well-understood by friendly colleagues, the highly connected workforce will voluntarily adopt mobile devices for most informal communication.

Whether it occur through simple text messages or apps like CoTap, specifically designed for mobile employee-to-employee communication, mobile devices will become the communication method of choice as the enterprise social network becomes less necessary and relevant.

Mobile’s New Impact on the Enterprise Social Network

Even if a formal enterprise social network has native apps for chat with colleagues and the ability to text messages to groups, employees’ new found connections with each other will empower them to find ways around corporate control. The formal social community will suddenly feel too formal, too burdensome, too “recordable” by IT and too visible and public for colloquial conversation amongst friends. Especially if the community is locked down behind a firewall and single sign on credentials, employees with strong ties to their colleagues will prefer simpler, faster ways to communicate via mobile devices.

Ironically, it is the consumerization of IT, which was a driving force in the creation of “enterprise social” communities, that is now eating away at social success; IT’s new focus on BYOD (bring your own device) programs is enabling employees to work around the formal social communication channels that companies worked so hard to create.

The 3 Changes You’ll See to Your Enterprise Social Network

So what will the impact of mobile, engaged employees actually be on your social network? Here are 3 areas of impact to prepare for:

1. The most basic usage metrics will fall

The frequency and number of logins, and the number of messages and comments posted by engaged employees will go down. This will occur because, as employees strengthen their ties with each other inside the social network, they will take conversations about logistics, planning, their kids and weekend plans into private backchannels on their mobile devices. This is one example of why measuring more than simple usage metrics is important for judging the long-term health of a mature social network.

2. Use of the Groups feature will change

Because a group is designed for focused conversations with smaller numbers of people, this is typically where teams and employees with similar interests build their connections with each other. Expect to see a cyclical decline in smaller groups designed for local teams or local special interests as they meet in person and take their conversations to their mobile devices. As mature groups lose steam, new ones will blossom.

3. Lurking and listening will increase

As social network users connect with their strong ties on mobile devices, and before they create new ones inside the community, they may not know WHAT to do inside the community anymore. Therefore, they will log in and browse, but may not post until they have clear direction on their purpose. It will be critical to have strong business purposes and paths to adoption so that users who move their socialization to mobile will still have a good reason to use the sanctioned, formal network.

How to Embrace Mobile’s Impact on Your Social Network

Community managers, take a deep breath. If you have a situation where employees are becoming connected with each other, you’re doing something right. You’re facilitating a connected enterprise. The fact that employees are moving discussions to another mode of communication is just an unintended consequence of the work you've done to strengthen ties.

The best way to combat the danger of employees permanently leaving your digital social network is to ensure that it is purpose-driven with clear business objectives so that, when administrative and friendly chit-chat move away from the network, employees still log in to perform work, share ideas, answer questions and collaborate about important business topics. Then, you’ll have the best of both worlds --employees who are productive with purpose inside the walls of your social network, and who are happy, friendly, and connected to their colleagues on their mobile device.

Title image courtesy of Sweet Lana (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Get more of Carrie's perspective in The 8 C's of Social Software Success: When Employees are Your Most Important Customers