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It's widely believed that one of the best ways to encourage Enterprise Social Network (ESN) adoption is for leaders to set an example. 

However, research we’ve conducted over the last four years places much more emphasis on personal interest.

When working with clients to develop digital workplace strategies we often conduct employee surveys as one element of the requirements discovery process. In total we have over 2,500 survey responses from people in organizations ranging in size from 2,000–60,000 employees. Often one of the digital workplace improvement goals is to bridge silos and improve knowledge sharing, so we like to include a question on social sharing in the workplace.

What Motivates ESN Participation

The survey question is “Which two of the following would most encourage you to participate in online discussions related to your work?” and we give people a list to pick from:

  • Personal interest in the topics discussed
  • Support from your line manager
  • Inclusion in your personal objectives
  • Participation by senior leaders
  • Being able to participate outside the office (e.g. on my phone)
  • Being able to contribute anonymously
  • Recognition from others (e.g. a "Thank you" button)
  • Private groups with controlled access
  • More time
  • Training to help me understand how to use it
  • A clear understanding of the purpose and value it brings
  • Being able to do so securely/confidentially
  • Other

The chart below summarizes the most popular first and second choices:

ESN results

Although senior leader participation is important (26 percent of choices in total), it ranks below line manager support (30 percent) and far below “Personal interest in the topics discussed” (82 percent).

What's In It For Me?

That a personal interest comes out high isn’t surprising — it’s another way of saying “What’s in it for me?” This reflects a healthy autonomy in how people choose to spend their time, especially on elective tasks like forum participation (for more around this, see my post, "How to Get Employees to Fill In Their Directory Profile").

More troubling is the importance of line manager support. It implies that even if the individual sees value, they worry that managers might see it as time-wasting or perhaps a sign of disloyalty to their team to share information across the organization. This is where participation by senior leaders looks promising: if those at the top see fit to spend time on an ESN, then surely it is legitimate for everyone to do the same?

However, there are drawbacks to using senior leaders in this way:

  1. It can send out a message that the purpose of the ESN is a communication channel for leaders, and that everyone else's role is simply to react to leader posts. One company we worked with had very high ESN adoption in the sense that many people logged on, but very low levels of posts per employee. When we looked closer, we found that it was being driven strongly by corporate communications as a broadcast channel, which was inadvertently sending out a message that it wasn’t for peer-to-peer discussions.
  2. Leaders may be reluctant to take part. Demographically, senior leaders in some organizations are less likely to be active on consumer social media such as Facebook, so they haven’t had chance to learn how it works through playing around. Asking them to start posting regularly on Yammer, without the safety net of a formal Communications process may feel high risk to them. In response they either play it safe by making mundane ‘happy-clappy’ comments (“Great work team!”) or post a few times and then leave for good. Neither models the behavior we want other people to copy.

This isn’t to say that if you have willing senior participants you shouldn’t cultivate this. But it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t focus too much on this as a sure-fire way to activate an ESN. 

A Multi-Threaded Approach to ESN Adoption

What about the other choices people made? Some of the responses we got back related to reducing the risk. For example, people wanted training, private groups or the ability to contribute anonymously. 

Anonymous posts have always been controversial because organizations fear that they will lead to abuse. However, they may make sense initially until people build confidence. Some systems allow for pseudo-anonymity too, meaning that posts appear with aliases, but the real identity is known to the administrator so people still feel accountable. 

One of the good things about anonymity is that it leads to juicer content with more open feedback. Realizing this, legal research firm LexisNexis used to have a kind of  digital jester called the Phantom. Employees could email comments to the Phantom who would post them on their behalf. The Phantom even once commented on the CEO’s blog that his posts were too drab!

"Recognition from others" ranked very low, despite recognition generally being seen as important in social motivation. One exception was in a company where the co-operation culture was already very strong — there it ranked third overall. I suspect that recognition plays a bigger role in sustaining use of ESNs, but doesn't attract them in the first place.

Finally, a warning about the data. It asks people to speculate about what they would do, and sometimes the reasons people give aren't the real ones. This is just one question in a survey, and one of several sources of data needed to plan a digital workplace strategy. For something like an ESN, we’d always seek to pilot and then gather more feedback.

All the same there is a clear leader in the pack, and a reminder that we need to take a multi-threaded approach to ESN adoption

Title image "Thumbs Up" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by  sk8geek