We’re all familiar with the Scary Analyst Headline: "Gartner Says 80 Percent of Social Business Efforts Will Not Achieve Intended Benefits Through 2015." Companies across the globe have trembled under the shadow of this warning, wondering if their efforts will be doomed into the darkness of Collaboration Failure. 

We’ve now codified best practices and documented every point of potential challenge, from a lack of leadership participation, to ineffective community management, to too much or too little training and unclear governance. “If we methodically address all of these areas, we’ll be successful,” we think. “We can’t fail!”

The Best Laid Plans ...

I’d argue that companies don’t actually fail at collaboration. They simply evolve along a multi-step, multi-year path with progress and setbacks. When a company finds itself giving up on collaborative efforts, it needs to re-set rather than resign itself to failure as an end point. Why? Gartner’s scary statistic focuses on a key term: “intended benefits” — which is what companies have to think about carefully. Just because goals that were set during a pilot or launch of an enterprise social network don’t materialize, doesn’t mean collaboration failure. In fact, it’s likely only the first step backward of many that will happen concurrently with a greater number of steps forward.

Collaboration programs' problems begin with the concept of planning. Now, as a Type A, checklist-loving planner, it physically hurts to say that planning alone doesn’t work. But in reality, a company may hypothesize how users will use a tool, and the benefits that they will measure. But as our friends at Gartner have predicted, a large chunk of those intended uses and benefits won't happen. 

Why? It’s simple: employee behavior, ideas and actions can’t be contained, predicted or controlled inside an enterprise social network (ESN). When a business deploys an ESN, a relatively small team of collaboration strategists build the entire program for a much larger group of users. Despite conducting focus groups, building user stories, training leaders and power users, these community designers cannot account for — much less control — the majority of use cases that will arise. 

Just because a social network is not used “as-planned,” doesn’t mean there's no benefit for employees. In reality, collaboration's achieved benefits are intangible, relationship-based and immeasurable (in the traditional sense). Companies who experience early failure meeting initial goals should see this as an opportunity to discover what actually creates value — and then work around optimizing for this natural evolution. It won’t be cheap or easy to potentially rework an entire program, but it will be valuable. And, it will be much less painful than sending an email to tens of thousands of employees that goes something like:

"Due to the fact that our social network did not reduce attrition by 4 percent, did not reduce email volume by 25 percent, and did not build enough measurable authenticity in leader-to-employee interactions, we will be dismantling the program and eliminating all of your content, new relationships and valuable human connections this Fall. In lieu of digital collaboration, we will now be sponsoring Fro-Yo Fridays in the cafeteria, effective immediately.”

Collaboration Evolution: 2 Examples

I’ve worked with two companies that both “failed” at enterprise social networking efforts, but took an evolutionary approach to their programs. While their initial planned programs did not achieve the intended benefits, they’ve chosen to let the evolution be the driving force moving forward.

Example 1: Retailer with a Mobile Focus

A large retailer wanted to empower its store-level employees with a social network that would allow for instant feedback — in the form of photos and corresponding narratives — from a store directly back to headquarters. This retailer sought to share best practices in merchandising as well as competitive intelligence around product displays. Its intended use case was almost completely mobile-based. 

And it worked, for a while. 

Two years post-deployment the effort lost steam. It turned out that the most demanded form of collaboration was on desktops at the home office. The company made the decision to abandon the mobile-first program and revive the collaboration effort with a new focus on collaboration with deep intranet integrations. 

The lesson: As companies evolve, so do their collaboration use cases. This retailer was willing to remove a social tool from the store level and optimize for the home office, enabling what it finally found was the higher value form of internal collaboration. By taking a long-term approach to value, this company saw its first collaborative “failure” as a stepping-stone rather than an end point.

Example 2: Regulated F100 and Pilot Fatigue

This highly respected and also extremely regulated company focuses on building the best products and services in its industry. Nearly four years ago, it elected to explore social networking internally with goals focused on productivity, time-to-market and retention costs. Not sure how to best blend governance and freedom, the company opened up its first social networking pilot program with a mile-long list of rules, regulations, restrictions on group creation, and business-attire-only profile photos, please. This, combined with a less than intuitive vendor technology fostered several months of frustration before the pilot was considered an official failure. 

However, the social embers still burned in many employees, and over two years’ time, a patient group of leaders resurrected the idea with new leadership, new vendors in the marketplace, and a less fractured internal technology landscape. The result has been a strong revival of the social networking program, with a new goal: to help employees build relationships. 

The lesson: If you experience collaboration failure, your launch plans might just be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Review each puzzle piece and decide what works and what doesn’t. In this company’s case, it was a doomed blend of the wrong tool, the wrong governance and the wrong time to introduce “social” as a competing technology priority. Waiting two years resolved these issues.

What Would Darwin Do? 

In the world of enterprise social networking, evolution is the norm. Collaboration strategists should look at failures critically before abandoning a social project. Who says it failed? According to what metrics and goals? Can you find examples of success and value being created? Can you find gaps where you didn’t think there was value, but another six months may just do the trick?

In the end, collaboration programs don’t operate in a vacuum. Species of living creatures may die out, but the rest of the world continues to turn. Collaboration programs are the same. Employees still need to share information and ideas. Communication is still critical. And a strong, robust, healthy collaboration program that has managed to adapt to all of these variables will thrive when given the chance.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  tracyshaun