One of the most cited reasons that companies deploy enterprise social networks is to enhance collaboration. It’s easy to see why. The theory goes “Your team will collaborate better with an enterprise social network helping people to share information more easily.”

But is this true? Can sharing information more easily really help people to collaborate better?

The original model of work was top down and centralized. Someone, such as a project manager or “the boss,” was responsible for coordinating work, resolving disputes and making decisions. In many companies, that’s still how the organization operates. More and more though, companies prefer to form multidisciplinary teams that are effectively self-governing. Developer teams are like that -- more democratic and made of specialists who have to work together to complete a project.

When Enterprise Social Networks Work

It is for these types of teams that enterprise social networks really work. Three attributes of these teams driving a need for enterprise social networks are:

  • Having to work together on the same content such as code, documents or rich media at the same time. Collaborating under these circumstances requires constant sharing of content and information.
  • Engaging in processes that generate a lot of exceptions. To resolve process exceptions requires lots of short term communication. It can be done with email but that’s hard to do when there are lots of participants. The conversation mode of an enterprise social network resolves exceptions more quickly and easily.
  • Needing to make decisions through consensus across silos or teams. These types of decisions can usually be resolved through meetings but meetings are often hard to schedule, tedious and inefficient. An enterprise social network can allow teams to make decisions quickly even when the team can’t meet.

When Other Tools Will Do

Not every team has these needs. If team members essentially work alone or decisions are relatively simple, then an enterprise social network may make little difference. Teams that work on something together but as individuals -- working together doesn't meant needing to share after all, just that everyone does his or her part -- may find little value in enterprise social networks. Content management products that pull together all the elements of a project into a whole may be a better collaboration product for those teams. Even email may make more sense for simpler needs. But not all needs are simple and fewer teams can make do with simple tools.

An enterprise social network can enhance communication across an enterprise by providing different channels in which to share information. It’s not essential that it also enhance collaboration to have value. For some teams, enterprise social networks will have a great effect on collaboration. Finding out which is which is one of the most important aspects of deploying an enterprise social network.

Editor's Note: Read more from Tom on collaboration in Context: The Next Generation in Social Collaboration