Social Networking for Business - is it Just Social?

Rethinking Communications

Social Networking for Business - is it Just Social?

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates  |  March 15, 2013

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.

I think it’s fair to say that the term social networking is on par with unified communications and cloud for being amorphous, ambiguous and just a little bit confusing. In the consumer world, most of us have a pretty good idea of what that looks like – Facebook (News - Alert), MySpace, Twitter, Google+, etc. To various degrees, these platforms have business applications – LinkedIn being the best example.

There are lots ways to use these tools, but the focus tends to be more about being social than networking. There’s nothing wrong with that, and being free, it’s not hard to find a reason to jump on. You could argue this is a generational thing, and the younger you are, the bigger a role social networking plays in your always-on life. Fair enough, but clearly lots of people find lots of utility here. Just like when Skype (News - Alert) came around, Facebook was built on the very 2.0 foundation of build-up-a-huge-user-base-and-figure-out-the-business-model-later. To date, both have been pretty successful, at least for the first part of that equation.

Things are different in the business world, and the stakes get higher when you add “enterprise” to the term. Once you start talking about enterprise social networking (or networks), things take a more serious grown-up tone. In this environment, the emphasis shifts from being social to networking, and finding better ways to share knowledge and collaborate with peers. There certainly are parallels to the consumer world of social networking, but there are some distinct challenges as well.

Before getting to those, let’s define the landscape a bit. There are many variations on enterprise social network (ESN) platforms, and it’s just as diverse as the consumer space. The most prominent that would touch the unified communications market come from the leading vendors, with prime examples being SharePoint as well as Yammer from Microsoft, Quad from Cisco, Social Media Manager from Avaya, Connections from IBM (News - Alert), and Socialcast from VMware.

Even among this handful, these platforms are all different, with some being vertical to support the vendor’s offerings, and others being horizontal to work across various vendor deployments. Also, to varying degrees, some will be built around proprietary social media applications, while others are meant more to draw from popular public platforms such as Twitter (News - Alert) or Facebook. Furthermore, there is a totally separate stratum of ESN solutions with a specific industry focus such as health care or financial services.

The ESN space is definitely complex, and this helps explain why it hasn’t gained the runaway traction of consumer social media platforms. This logic seems backwards, given how superficial the latter is, at least relative to the business-level value that ESN is intended to deliver. Not to mention that these platforms are free, so really, what’s the holdup?

According to research just published by Deloitte, 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies have some form of ESN in use. However, roughly one in four employees will not sign up for the network, and of those who do, only 40 percent will post content on a monthly basis. If this is the answer to drive collaboration and make the business smarter through pooled knowledge, then maybe we need to lower our sights.

Anyone following the UC space knows how strongly the vendors are emphasizing the value of collaboration. Easy for them to say – they provide the tools, but it’s up to the business to actually use them. Not only that, but some vendors tout this as the path to unleashing innovation within the organization – another lofty promise that rests squarely with the customer. Just like wearing a French beret doesn’t make you an artist, ESN doesn’t make you an innovator. The potential is there – absolutely – but getting these higher order benefits is really about culture and how well people work together on a human scale.

On paper, ESNs can certainly enable these outcomes, but it’s hard to do. The Deloitte research provides other data points that show relatively low levels of adoption and engagement, and clearly the promise is not being achieved yet. Part of this is human nature – ESNs are free, voluntary and only exist online. Employees have no personal stake in their ESN, and when out of sight – offline – it’s out of mind. In these situations, people follow the path of least resistance, and it’s simply much easier to passively consume content on the ESN rather than create something new that’s worth sharing. The Deloitte research confirms that, with data showing that 5 percent of ESN users generate 75 percent of the content.

These low levels of engagement really aren’t that different from the consumer world of social media, but businesses have a higher purpose with ESNs. A key reason why there isn’t so much engagement is the fact that ESNs often exist in a vacuum. They may be great repositories of information, but without direct integration with business processes that drive your workflows, you won’t have much incentive to use them in a proactive way.

Add to that issues of trust and privacy, and you can see why employees aren’t staying late to populate their profiles. They get the social concept, but if given a choice, would much rather spend that time posting photos to their Facebook Timeline (News - Alert) or sharing videos of their kids on YouTube. Social media means different things to different people, and they generally open up the most in a trusted environment. For some, there is a Big Brother aspect to ESNs, and being voluntary, why share any more than necessary? Ironically, there is probably far more risk posting to public social media sites than to your company’s ESN, but that’s another conversation.

For now, I just want to make the connection between ESNs and unified communications, as the combined impact can be significant – but only if both get traction with employees. The value is there, but to achieve it, businesses need to do a better job explaining it as well as ensuring employees of their privacy. This really is another example of where the technology isn’t the issue – the key lies in getting people to use it – and that’s why I’m writing about it here at Rethinking Communications.

Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Edited by Brooke Neuman