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While companies were busy evaluating the benefits of ESNs, their employees went ahead and implemented their own systems.

Enterprise social networks (ESN) were born from a fusion of commercial networks like Facebook and enterprise content management systems. They aimed to increase collaboration among geographically dispersed workforces, as well as improve information transparency and visibility.

Many ESNs provide a browser-based, mobile-friendly system with familiar, consumer-market features -- like tagging and group sites -- integrated with the traditional enterprise content management (ECM) capabilities. Companies such as Microsoft, Jive and Huddle capitalized on this market, providing organizations with systems aimed at achieving these goals.

Asana and Trello are two companies that disrupted the market for task and project management software by providing consumer-facing, mobile-friendly, easy-to-use systems. The advent of consumer tools like Dropbox, WeTransfer and Box spawned an entire ecosystem aimed at facilitating quick and easy information transfers. There are also tools like Slack and Nimble that seek to aggregate multiple systems to enhance overall team communication.

So how can an organization looking to implement a collaboration solution find the right one?

1. Dig Up the Roots

ESNs are powerful, complex and expensive solutions, so start by finding out what problems they can solve. Talk to department stakeholders about the collaboration issues they have faced. Give priority to the problems that affect the most departments and users. Some pain points may be addressed by fixing existing processes that reside outside of a particular system.

Once you narrow down your problems, group them into common themes to evaluate potential solutions. If the push for an ESN or a particular solution comes from the executive level, IT teams and stakeholders can use these sessions to validate use cases from their workforce to see the benefits.

Find out whether departments have evaluated or invested in their own solutions to solve these issues. The most important thing here is to discover why teams adopted their respective solutions and what problems they solved. Some common reasons for implementation include:

  • Familiarity: If someone uses software in his or her personal life to solve a similar problem, they'll often consider the software as a potential organizational solution. This is how Dropbox proliferated in larger companies, as workers needed a way to store and send files from anywhere and any device.
  • Low barriers to entry: A solution that's accessible via web browser or mobile application is easier for today's workforce to adopt. Many employees work remotely or work during their commutes, so solutions that make this easy will stand out.
  • No training necessary: The more intuitive a system is, the less training someone will need to use it effectively.
  • Lack of infrastructure: Software-as-a-service offerings are extremely popular with business users because they do not need much more than an email address or a credit card to get started. Benefits are provided nearly immediately, and no IT team involvement is needed for installation.
  • Department-specific problems: A department might adopt a solution because they assume that no other departments are experiencing the same pain points. For example, a project management team may turn to Trello because they are the only ones managing a wealth of products. A CIO or Sales VP may be the only person using SaneBox to manage their emails and tasks, or Nimble to maintain their relationships and contacts.

2. Impact Assessment

Before choosing a solution, assess the impact it will have on the workforce, IT and the organization as a whole. End-users already struggle with information overload, so adding a new company-wide system may exacerbate the issue.

For example, if an organization already uses Office 365, Lync and Salesforce, adding an ESN may only serve as another communication channel to hide information you need. You may need to train your workforce on how to use the ESN, and it may disrupt existing behavior or processes. Conversely, adding a solution may require IT administrators to manage yet another data silo and force end-users to learn a new system.

An example: consider the wealth of enterprise file sync and share (EFFS) solutions currently available. The market is teeming with solutions -- all catering to different demographics, personas and ecosystems.

In its most recent Magic Quadrant for this market, Gartner divided up solutions into two groups: extension offerings and destination offerings. A destination offering was "created for the primary purpose of syncing and sharing content" whereas extension offerings add EFSS capabilities to existing collaboration and content management applications and/or solutions.

Each group comes with distinct advantages and disadvantages. Extension offerings provide companies a lower barrier to entry for both IT and end-users due to familiarity and usage of related products. But these solutions may not fit multiple usage scenarios and use cases. Mobile-focused extensions may not provide external collaboration capabilities, whereas a destination offering may include both, at the cost of maintaining a separate ecosystem.

Stepping outside the file sharing world, look for collaboration solutions that provide a high level of integration with existing systems. Slack's popularity is based on how many systems it can aggregate, consume and interact with. The same story applies for Trello. Much of its collective appeal comes from the fact that it resonates with developers, business users and C-level executives. Similar things can be said about Office 365 or IBM Connections. Consider your existing investments and align your problems against your current systems.

A thorough assessment will help you evaluate potential collaboration solutions with a sharper eye and find the solution that will better match your needs.

Title image byCreative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  Anna & Michal