“What we really need is our own private company Instagram, or maybe a chat-app just for employees” said no reasonable manager ever. So why is it that we’re seeing those very tools pop up in the enterprise market?

Modern enterprise collaboration leaders are on the hunt for mobile technology solutions that empower employees on the go. As knowledge workers spend less time at their desks, companies are scrambling to stay ahead in a BYOD, socially-fueled, cloud-based environment.

But as the enterprise seeks out the newest technology, we should take a step back and realize that the right tools are already here -- enterprise social networks.

“Wait,” you’re thinking. "That can’t be possible. Our enterprise social network just doesn’t meet our needs, which is why need better apps and tools.”

If you’re reading this article, you probably use something along the lines of Jive, tibbr, Socialcast or most likely, Yammer, the current technology consolation prize routinely doled out by Microsoft (“Hey, sorry about that 3-year SharePoint license we just sold you. Here, have some free Yammer!”). You've likely experienced the challenges in getting everybody to collaborate on your global ESN, and now you’re looking for the super-simple apps with less overhead.

Collaboration friends, you’re looking for social love in all the wrong places. The failure of most enterprise social networks is due to poor or nonexistent community management and programming -- not the technology.

Companies often fail to invest long-term in community management that helps to enable all of a knowledge worker’s use cases, work styles, information needs and connection finding opportunities at a desktop or on a mobile device. Even when macro trends shift (as they’re doing now toward mobile) a strong community management team can build out new working behaviors with their current ESN. But without long-term vision, adequate programming and a dedicated staff to usher in the art and science of community management, an enterprise social network is an empty technology shell.

Cue the entrance of myriad purpose-built social applications modeled after consumer paradigms: Instagram for companies. Meetup for employees. Startups are slicing a knowledge worker’s daily routine with a blade crafted from Ruby on Rails, launching micro-purpose work apps that do one particular thing and nothing more.

These smaller collaboration vendors are banking on the failure of your enterprise social network. And now every company must decide how to react.

A Post-Mortem on Enterprise Social Network Failures

From the beginning, we hoped enterprise social networks would be these miraculous open spaces where employees would share, talk, create and give. The entire company was going to change for the better. But we soon realized the truth: the “big company” view of an ESN wasn’t the most immediately valuable or attainable goal. It lacked the “what’s in it for me?” answer for most employees.

Late last year, I spoke with my former business school professor, Dr. David Obstfeld, a leading academic researcher on human social networks and innovation at work. We lamented the initial failure of the ESN movement to live up to the hype.

It’s somewhat of an illusion,” he commented, “people flinging ideas everywhere. With an enterprise social network, there’s a gestation period where people need to figure out how to adapt.”

He was right about two critical things. One, the gestation period -- oftentimes, companies who launched an ESN wanted immediate results, ROI and success stories. In reality, new behaviors enabled by social networks take time to evolve (as in years), and community maturity doesn’t happen until many moons after the first executive ESN report is due.

Two, the idea-flinging -- without community management, idea-flinging is nothing more than that. Companies who failed to invest in community management did not have a process to execute those new ideas or recognize those creative thinkers. The initial failure of enterprise social networks was not in the technology, but in the lack of a focus on the people, programming and employee enablement in the long term.

Industry analyst Stowe Boyd recently said, “My sincere belief is that we are seeing a shift from social collaboration tools toward alternatives – like work chat.” He also noted, “We are moving to smaller social scale, starting with the individual, and then on to small cooperative groups, or sets.”

I agree. We’re moving there because our all-in, global initiatives didn’t provide enough value for the individual, and we’ve finally learned that we need to enable small teams before we can create collective corporate value.

The ESNs in place are the right vehicles to manage these smaller-scale activities, assuming community management is available. But due to the lingering focus on the technology instead of the programming, the doors are now open to startups building enterprise apps with consumer paradigms in mind.

If Apps were Bracelets

Three types of new collaboration and social apps are coming to the enterprise market. Each type serves a different purpose, kind of like the accessories you choose to wear depending on the day.

  1. The department store tennis bracelet -- These brand new enterprise social network apps seek to replace your current ESN and serve as the official conversation hub. Think Slack and CoTap. They’re shiny and look nice from a distance, but up close, they’re not as functional or high-quality as the real versions.
  2. The friendship bracelet -- These very specific purpose-built apps do just one thing (such as only photo sharing), just as your purple braided friendship bracelet signifies your very best friendship with Megan and Megan alone.
  3.  The charm bracelet -- These add-on tools enhance your existing enterprise social network's experience. Think Salesforce connectors analytics dashboards. Your ESN provides the foundation, these apps add excitement and something new, just as a charm of the Eiffel Tower gives a little more meaning to your jingling wrist adornment.

While I’m not a fan of the tennis and friendship bracelet approaches (they create information silos and distract from more valuable activities), add-on apps offer tremendous value by building context and giving new functionality to existing ESNs.

Most of the big vendors aren’t innovating as fast as they used to and may have feature deficiencies (this is why I’m quietly building a super stealthy social network add-on that directly addresses the “what’s in it for ME?” conundrum for middle managers and individual contributors; ping me if you want to talk about it). If a company has a defined use case and will support behaviors around new apps that enhance the existing social experience, by all means, add these to the collaboration repertoire.

What’s Next?

Before launching any new apps, evaluate your social collaboration maturity. Then, begin with the following checklist.

  1. If you have an enterprise social network with engaged users and a strong community management program is evident, recognize that the future of collaboration will happen at a smaller scale. Build out programs to help teams use the ESN on an individual, team and group level, as well as on their mobile devices. Follow the trends in technology and the future of work to keep pace with your programming.
  2. If you have an enterprise social network that isn’t working and can’t be saved, don’t be afraid to pull the plug. As Carol Rozwell of Gartner recently said, “You must be willing to optimize what you have and kill off what doesn’t work anymore.” Don't leave your employees in the dust, however; retain data and communicate about your new plans for a different flavor of collaboration. Then, move to step 3.
  3. If you don’t have a functional ESN in place, take the time to review larger solutions like Yammer against smaller apps on the market. What approach will fit your current and future workforce better -- a global social network, or maybe a suite of apps in a company app store? Regardless of which technology solution you choose, make sure to invest in community management that empowers individuals, teams and eventually the company as a whole.
  4. If you elect to use any of the small add-on or discreet purpose apps, make sure to do your homework. Should you trust your collaboration needs with new, small vendors? Assume that within two to three years, the collaboration landscape will have shifted again, and smaller vendors will have been acquired or shut down. Both of these events will impact your experience significantly, and it may even be worth investigating building your own add-ons via your ESN API or creating something specific to your company from scratch.

No matter what approach you take or where you are in your collaboration journey, remember that the one constant at your company will be your people. Give them the information, programming and opportunities they need to thrive, and any technology that you choose will play a supporting role. 

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicenseTitle image by  lorenkerns