The 3 Most Damaging Enterprise Social Network Myths

It’s the summer of 2014 and enterprise social networks are as hot in the market as they were a year ago. But there remain a handful of persistent myths and half-truths that organizations still encounter on the path to “working like a network.” Like the Greek gods and loony theories about Jon Snow’s real parents on Game of Thrones, these myths never really die. Unlike those other myths, though, the ones around enterprise social can really hold you back from a successful deployment.

If you’re interested in truly achieving success with an enterprise social rollout, you'll need to tackle these roadblocks head on and have a strategy in place to accept, address and sometimes even outmaneuver them.  

Let's call out the myths and address them head-on. The way to get around many issues with enterprise social involve adequate planning and communication, but these particular problems represent fundamental beliefs often held by the planners and communicators.

In other words, they’re assumptions you want to change within your stakeholder team before you even get started. Curious? Good. Let’s get going.

Myth #1: You need everyone in the organization on the same social network to see real business benefits from adopting ESN.

Truth: A single, unified enterprise social network might not be the best answer for your organization. 

Different business areas have different business needs, and the curious evolution of ESN solutions has created a marketplace with several key fissures. Who integrates best with Workday or PeopleSoft? (HR will gravitate in that direction.) Who talks shop with SAP? (Manufacturing firms will take a hard look, especially if the price is right.) Who can make meaningful use (pun intended) out of data in Epic, McKesson and Cerner? (Healthcare providers will pay very close attention!)

Meanwhile, across the platform, Microsoft’s Yammer will increasingly appeal to information workers who like their social with a heavy dose of the PowerPoint, Excel and Word files they’re churning out online. Salesforce’s Chatter will win the day with business development types who love the tight integration with the data they live by (except in Dynamics CRM shops where Yammer rules). Big, global conglomerates with a heavy IBM footprint will continue to get mileage out of Connections, while those with the time, money and inclination to do ESN as a platform will be very impressed with the pure-play offering of Jive and their growing list of integrated partnerships.

The temptation is strong to standardize on one ESN platform. There’s merit in the belief that a network grows progressively stronger as it adds more nodes. That’s certainly what every vendor wants to see -- as long as you choose theirs, of course. But anecdotal evidence suggests that platform adoption may well be just as fractured as the audience is.

In the spring of last year, I participated in an enterprise social “user roundtable” at Gartner’s Portals, Content and Collaboration (“PCC”) Summit. Slightly more than a dozen representatives of large and mid-size companies, public and private alike, sat around the table and swapped stories about our various deployments of enterprise social tools.

Nearly every person there came from a company that had taken at least two networks to proof-of-concept, and found -- get this -- that different areas of the business preferred different tools. That makes sense. Anyone can do a newsfeed. As noted above, the leading networks are evolving to appeal in other, stickier ways -- and those ways don’t always cross paths naturally.

Once they start, it’s hard to get Sales off of Chatter. It’s tough to get information workers out of Yammer. It’s difficult to replace a Jive-enabled intranet with one that doesn’t breathe social throughout its entire fabric. The software companies won’t like it, but perhaps the path of wisdom lies not in standardizing across thousands of users but getting these different networks talking to one another? After all, enterprise social success never happens with a big bang. It starts small, in specific pockets with specific needs that need filling. The next level of value hits when you begin knitting those pockets together.

Maybe, just maybe, that knitting (think “integration”) might be most effective when it takes users’ different scenarios, needs and desires into account instead of bowing before the altar of the almighty enterprise licensing deal. This isn’t anything new: UX people have been preaching the needs of the user for 20 years. We’d all do well to listen to them.

Myth #2: Enterprise social networks are just another productivity application you can deploy to make user's lives easier.

Truth: Enterprise social isn’t about the technology. Well, it is, but only a little. You’ve probably heard this before, but the greater part of any enterprise social rollout -- maybe up to 75 percent of some projects I’ve seen -- is planning and communication. Properly embracing enterprise social should represent a significant change in the way people work: it’s the next step in the evolution of business communication.

Companies who used pneumatic tubes didn’t embrace the telephone overnight. Written memos didn’t disappear with the introduction of email. And email servers -- in your data centers or someone else’s cloud -- won’t get turned off immediately because you activated some Yammer or Chatter licenses.

We still meet far too many people, sometimes even from the software companies themselves, who think you can just roll a social network out, turn it on and users will light it up like a Christmas tree. The real world simply doesn't work that way. Of course you'll have early adopters, but they'll remain your core audience unless you plan things up front and engage in continuous outreach and "soft" engagement activity for at least a year after launch. Which leads us to our third and final fallacy for the day ….

Myth #3: You can get everyone using enterprise social if you invest enough time in planning and communication.

Truth: There will always be holdouts who don't adopt enterprise social networks. You probably know some of them: Engineers so process-focused that they simply refuse to grasp the value of ad hoc collaboration; developers who don’t see the point to using any new application unless they built it themselves (preferably with something open source); sales people who won’t pick up a glass of water unless they understand how it helps them exceed their quota and pump their commission up. It’s not about age either, to take a fourth myth head-on. It’s about how people think, regardless of whether they’re a hoary Baby Boomer or a wet-behind-the-ears Millennial.

Some people just aren’t going to use enterprise social. There. We said it.

We could go on, but you get the point. At some level, we need to accept that there will be holdouts who won’t convert. More colorfully, to keep these forces of evil from becoming a distraction or, worse, a negative influence on your efforts, you’ll need to 1. accept that some percentage of your workforce isn’t going to use this tool. Define what an “acceptable loss” is going to be in your engagement plan. Then 2. come up with a mitigation strategy to surround those pockets of malfeasance with people who enthusiastically embrace the network.

Why? Because more often than not, lots of people will. Despite all of the above, the benefits of enterprise social networks are still very real. Provided you take the time to align these solutions to actual business problems -- and put in the effort to help people understand how much easier they'll make life in place of those specific business problems -- more people will pick them up than will resist them. We’ve seen it happen time and time again, and the software companies certainly aren’t losing money on them.

Enterprise social is here to stay. If you want to make it work, just make sure you know the difference between the myth and the reality.  

Title image by (oVo) (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license