Your personal network, your social network(s), your corporate network, your neural network … you can’t swing a cat these days without hitting a network (Note: no cats were harmed in the writing of this column). And then Microsoft uses the phrase “work like a network.” What’s the big deal?

To me, “Work Like a Network” is the basis of fundamental communication and sociology of the workplace -- not rocket science. It’s marketing spin, just like “BYOD” and “consumerization of IT” and “Mentos: The Freshmaker.” But there’s a slight twist that Microsoft brings, and it’s an important one.

As others pointed out months ago, “work like a network” is essentially Microsoft putting lipstick on “enterprise social.” And Gartner recently reported the “social enterprise” is heading to the trough of the Hype Cycle.

Are people throwing out the whole idea of “enterprise social” with the bathwater? If so, that’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot of opportunity contained in the ability to operate as a network. By some accounts, when “enterprise social” was implemented, it was people throwing tools at a problem and expecting a magical productivity transformation.

The flaw, of course, was the implementation -- not necessarily the tools themselves.

With "Work Like a Network," people become the most valuable nodes of the network. More important, we now have a chance to implement not only the tools but the change management processes and planning that are imperative when people are involved in the equation. By focusing on the users’ needs we can work like a network in the best possible way.

If working like a network means leveraging technology to improve people’s connections to other people and information to help them “see what’s happening, adapt and make better decisions and grow their business,” then you have to not only provide the right technology -- whether it’s Microsoft Office 365, Yammer, Jive, etc. -- but also do the following:

  1. Understand the people who use this technology
  2. Design easy to use solutions that allow them to work like a network
  3. Enable the network via a right sized adoption approach, or “customer experience management”

Understand the People

The enterprise technologies of old didn’t care who used them -- the expectation was that users would learn to do it “my way or the highway” style. That doesn’t fly any more. Users know better. They want and expect technology to make it easy.

Have you ever gone through the steps of a tool -- let's say an online enrollment process, or e-commerce process -- and noticed glaring and specific ways to simplify that process? We all have. It makes us angry. If it’s a tool we use every day in our jobs, it’s demoralizing. Enterprises can fix that: start with user research and develop the strategy that puts the users in sync with the technology. It doesn’t pay to cut that corner.

Design Easy to Use Solutions

Once you understand your core users, the natural step is to design the solution that streamlines the processes as much as possible, taking the big vision and bringing it down to a workable, phased plan that ideally allows measurements against KPIs throughout. This means looking at ways to optimize knowledge sharing, providing contextually relevant social opportunities right at the point where the project decisions are being made. Enable proper search tagging and metadata to facilitate that context -- and make sure it’s easy for users to share their knowledge with others. That includes knowledge about a document, a project or topic. Allow users self-identify their fields of expertise and keep them engaged with the opportunities to use their knowledge.

Enable 'Customer Experience Management'

Now the fun part. You’ve built the tool that lets users engage and connect beyond the limits of their day-to-day work-lives. How you handle the launch and education of users is crucial to success. If you skimp on that you are doomed to mediocrity.

Engage managers, solicit feedback from users prior to finalizing -- getting their buy-in will help with adoption. Make it friendly, fun and accessible. Give hands-on demos, provide videos and motivate users to dig in. When you make it rewarding, you go a long way into breaking down the old habits and building up better new ones.

Is “Working Like a Network” rocket science? No. In some cases, it’s not even computer science. However, it’s not a bad thing to revisit the fundamentals now and again. Why is Microsoft saying this is important? And what, if anything, is new here?

The acknowledgement and importance of people in the process is what’s new to some (old news to the rest of us). And if we’re able to finally break through the UX barrier in the enterprise, I, for one, am all for “working like a network.”