behind the 8 ball
PHOTO: Dennis Heller

Getting the most out of an enterprise social network (ESN) sounds easy: make it a valuable source to help employees do their jobs. But achieving this goal is still a struggle for many. A recent SWOOP Analytics report about Yammer usage (registration required) found an estimated 69 percent of employees read messages on Yammer, but only 38 percent contribute. Yammer is one of the more popular ESNs along with platforms Slack, Microsoft Teams, Chatter by Salesforce, Workplace by Facebook and Jive.

So how exactly do you make ESNs valuable for your employees? Experts told CMSWire to always keep business objectives in mind, communicate without jargon and delegate conversation champions among other considerations. “What’s important to remember is that an ESN has to meet not only the human needs, but also the business needs,” said Tim Wenhold, chief innovation officer of Power Home Remodeling, whose team custom-built the company's ESN.  

Are You Speaking Human in the Digital Workplace?

One of the first things you need to do is speak language that employees understand. Andrew Pope, partner and innovation and collaboration consultant for Innosis, said too many organizations assume their employees have a foundation of knowledge with platforms like Yammer.

Carrie Basham Young, CEO of Talk Social to Me, drove home these points in her blog on simplifying communications approaches. "Collaboration leaders should conduct interviews and ask thoughtful questions about employees’ work, understand the vocabulary that they use daily, and inquire about the value of collaboration across desk-based and field-based workers,” Basham Young wrote. “Interview a good cross section of people, listening for the language that resonates with each group. This will allow you to capture authentic content and context to build an authentic collaboration dictionary.”

Basham Young broke down the difference between communicating in jargon versus more simple, understood ways:

  • Jargon: “We apply the principles of digital transformation by journey-mapping the collaboration experience across Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z personas.” 
  • Clearer: “We run an online ‘question and answer desk’ to help employees get support with their biggest challenges while on the road.” 
Related Article: 5 Ways to Kick-Start Your Enterprise Social Network 

Use the Language of the Employees You Want to Engage

Basham Young told CMSWire she does not mean there is no place for the “bigger talk about digital transformation.” “There obviously is,” she said. Organizations, though, need to understand they should be “making it simple to understand using the language of the employees that we want to engage.”

Basham Young worked with an organization that used Workplace by Facebook for its ESN. In talks with field-based workers, her team learned that drivers and technicians were “using Workplace as a type of mobile 'how-to' guide — a quick reference on-the-go for equipment fixes and best practices,” Basham Young blogged. “One tech called it the company’s ‘help book,’ and we tested that name with other techs in the field. The term resonated well, and thus, we began a campaign touting Workplace as the company’s ‘Help Book’ to get fast answers from peers with similar experiences. There’s no mention of collaboration, or ROI, or any kind of digital transformation. In this company’s case, branding Workplace as a good old fashioned reference guide made all the difference.”

Related Article: Digital Transfor-What? It's Time We Simplify the Language of Employee Collaboration

ESN User: Connection to Digital Backbone is Key

For some, an ESN is valuable for employees when it incorporates the organization’s existing technical infrastructure and integrates with its existing business applications. Power Home Remodeling's Wenhold said his team built its ESN “Connect" from the ground up using open source tools as an extension of Nitro, the company’s proprietary technology platform developed in-house to serve as the digital backbone of the company. “It just made sense,” Wenhold said, “to write it into our own platform because it would be cemented into our core business processes.”

Connect allows a distributed global workforce to connect under the same digital platform and in the same language. It is a custom, fully integrated data hub that captures transactional insights in real time across the value chain, enhancing workflow and service among Power associates, partners and customers. Its current focus is on developing Artificial Intelligence (AI), augmented reality, computer vision and conversational computing capabilities.

“Because it’s built directly into Nitro, our people communicate and collaborate more efficiently and effectively,” Wenhold said. “They can exchange documents and images, and it’s plugged into every other system managed through Nitro. Communications are, and will continue to be, core to our company’s success.” 

Related Article: The Role of Intranets in the Age of Social Networks

Tailoring ESN ‘Rooms’ to Specific Themes

Wenhold said his company fosters collaboration and adoption in Connect by tailoring “rooms” within the platforms. Wenhold calls Connect the company’s “culture in code.” It’s an extension, he said, of the environment the company aims to foster. New hires are put into the Connect environment and their department’s “room.” They have access to their team’s entire conversation history and can look back to see what’s been happening in the organization. 

Some examples of rooms include:

  • A book club, among other social groups and clubs, are hosted through rooms in Connect.
  • The business technology group has a dedicated room called, “BT Out and About.” This, Wenhold said, is where updates and photos can be shared if someone is out of the office on vacation or attends a conference. 
  • There’s even a group for the company “foodies,” who make plans to go to try new restaurants after work. “Connect has been essential in improving employee engagement through teamwork — work-related or not,” Wenhold said. 
Related Article: How Modern Intranets Connect the Digital Workplace

Educate: Help Employees Recognize Value in ESN

Some organizations struggle to convince employees their ESN has a “real purpose,” according to Innosis's Pope. “CRMs ... employees see those as tools that have a purpose,” Pope said. “But ESNs are often not considered in that same light. And I think that's the problem. No one really engages them in that way. Whereas if they were seen as a tool that delivers business, process or business activity, it might make a difference. You need to define it and own it, then it changes the perspective of it.”

If you’ve got an Office 365 deployment and your organization wants Yammer as a way to engage in that environment, create posts around why you are doing this and how it’s going to improve productivity or how it’s related more broadly to Office 365. “And then you can start to build communities around that,” Pope said.

Align to Business Purpose

Pope noted that when ESNs are rolled out, the initial focus tends to be on people's personal interests. “That gives us a sense of purpose,” Pope said. “We find areas where we feel belonging. So if someone starts posting pictures of their pets, and you've got a pet, suddenly there's instant connection. It takes off.” 

Where organizations fail is they allow that to continue without taking the opportunity to build on that engagement by aligning to the business purpose. “And sometimes that can be really starting small and looking for areas of the business where perhaps you do need conversations to get something done,” Pope said. “If you're coordinating a project or coordinating an activity that needs quite a lot of interactions with different people in the organization, typically, you might do that by email and phone. You can just migrate the whole process into your social network. It serves a very tangible need.”

Related Article: Intranets or ESN? Why Not Both

Get Someone to Facilitate the Conversation

If you want your organization and employees to get value out of your ESN, have someone driving the conversation. A facilitator can make sure the right people get in the right rooms and are served up the most relevant content, according to Pope. “Social networks are perfect as long as there is a facilitator,” Pope said. “You need to get somebody in there, like a community manager, in essence who's driving it, and who’s asking the questions and trying to bring more people into the conversations. … Most of what we’re doing in business involves conversations of some kind, and it's just really trying to find ones that would benefit from being visible and pan across as many business functions as possible.”

Listen to the Numbers

Your organization probably has a wealth of customer analytics. That needs to be applied to your ESN and employees. Wenhold’s Connect ESN tracks statistics on adoption rate and message flow. These statistics recently told them they were missing a large segment of their community who were Android users. While most people tend to access Connect on their desktops at work, the team decided to introduce an Android app (in addition to the one already available for iOS) to meet the needs of a greater portion of its employee base. "At Power, we have a long-view," Wenhold said. "We’re thinking about what we will be doing five and 10 years down the road. That’s why it made the most sense to build it ourselves. We wanted to be in control of our own destiny."