Bumpy bike trails

The introduction of social tools and features, such as an enterprise social network or even just commenting on intranet content, can lead to some level of nervousness amongst senior managers and those in risk functions.

In theory you can see their point. Every organization has unhappy employees. And executives see the venomous comments left on sites like Glassdoor. Given that the introduction of social tools usually gives all employees a voice and offers previously unheard of transparency, the potential for a variety of uncomfortable and troublesome scenarios lurks.

Most ESNs Self-Regulate

But in reality, the overwhelming experience of most companies is that “trouble” fails to materialize or isn't that significant.

That's the impression that I've received from the many intranet and ESN teams I've listened to. The networks are self-regulating. All comments are attributable and the “report this” button has meant that user generated content rarely has to be taken down, or has been found borderline.

Of course incidents occur. Respected intranet professional Martin White highlighted an interesting example from a UK bank where the HR Director's  intranet post painted an overly rosy picture of the company. His post was met with an avalanche of negative comments from employees. But on the face of it this kind of “trouble” is relatively rare.

I could be wrong. It's natural for intranet, ESN and community teams to talk up successes and downplay issues. But my overall sense is that the fears of nervous executives about a tsunami of subversive comments and posts from employees just hasn't happened.

The question to ask then is if no dissent on an ESN always healthy? On the surface, it looks like a good thing. Staff can be trusted and senior stakeholders are less likely to put up roadblocks restricting your ESN. But there's a negative flip side. 

Enterprise social networks have the potential to be disruptive and transformative. They create new ways of working and change processes. ESNs can encourage and facilitate transparency, create new opportunities for dialogue and potentially move organizations away from an emphasis on hierarchy, giving employees more influence on senior decision-making. But to get to that state you should expect a bumpy ride.

Given that a significant proportion of employees may be disengaged or dissatisfied in any organization, some discontent and disagreement goes with the territory in any truly open ESN or social intranet. Even in organizations with high levels of engagement there will always be some resistance to change.

The Implications of No Awkward Posts

So what does it mean if your ESN or intranet contains very few awkward or troublesome posts? Or that you've never had to consider taking down content? There are a number of implications.

It could reflect a broadly positive state of affairs. Your organization may have a truly open culture, where critical but constructive comments are tolerated, perhaps even encouraged.  Good community management may also be in play to ensure difficult topics stay constructive.

One example of this is Genentech, the US-based biotechnology company. At Genentech, the company culture is sufficiently open and management relaxed enough to support a situation where anonymous commenting is allowed on the intranet. This is highly unusual, but on the DW24 broadcast from DWG held in May, we heard how this led to some valuable conversations.

Unfortunately it is far more often the case that employees feel uncomfortable raising their voice about sensitive issues in a forum the whole organization can view.  A variety of issues play a part in this scenario: a dominant conservative company culture; nervousness among teams and the middle managers who lead them; a lack of clarity about what senior management think of the social network; and the perception that there will be little value and high risk in raising their concerns on a social network.

A lack of maturity around the use of social tools can also play a part. Most ESN and intranet managers still focus on the end goal of adoption. High adoption doesn't necessarily correlate with value or creating dialogue around meaty topics, but it is needed to change perceptions about the ESN and in making the workforce comfortable using it.

Unwanted ESN Perceptions

There is potential danger when a social tool is at the stage of maturity where the focus is on adoption. Employees may harbor doubts about the network’s value, inclusiveness or openness. This can undermine a move towards transparency.

Here are just a few of the potential tensions that could be bubbling under the surface.


If adoption is too low, there can be a perception that the channel has little value. This undermines many efforts, not just the creation of a more open organization.

Not a level playing field

ESNs or social intranets often launch in phases. They usually get launched to the most convenient sections, which tends to be knowledge workers. This may be due to logistical issues, centered around a lack of digital identities for retail or factory workers, or the need to create better mobile access.

But the end result means that the ESN is not truly inclusive. If half of your employees cannot or find it hard to access it, your ESN is not open.

All platitudes, no attitude

If your ESN doesn't feel like it reflects reality, credibility goes out the window. Some organizations try to facilitate debate in a more structured way. That can work, but if it feels forced or false there can be an "uncanny valley" effect, which is more undermining.

Internal vs. external contrast

External social media comments from customers can often be robust and frank, particularly in B2C companies. Community managers tend to be apologetic and efficient in their response. This stands in sharp contrast to internal channels, where employees feel they can’t be so open and honest. This contrast is striking, particularly if some employees are actively commenting outside the firewall.

No response

Even when there are comments on an ESN or intranet which address management issues or similar questions asked, sometimes they are not always addressed or even answered. This has the effect of devaluing the ESN – a place where it’s not really worth adding comments because it won’t change anything. Similarly even if comments are addressed and promises made, these must be followed through to preserve credibility.

Embrace the Bumpy Journey

Going through an awkward incident such as a string of negative comments on the CEO blog may ultimately be healthy.  Rather than considering it a situation to avoid at all costs, view it as an essential step on the journey to becoming a more open organization, where the ESN or intranet reflects true dialogue.

A high profile incident which passes off without a major crisis is a great opportunity for senior management and the organization as a whole to learn how to respond positively to negative sentiment. By reacting in the right way, leaders can show employees that they do actually care what they have to say.

It can also help to override any employee perceptions that the social intranet is just a new channel for corporate communications, and set it up as an avenue for two-way, honest dialogue that will change the organization for the better.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  futureshape 

Title image by futureshape