5 keys to unlock success in enterprise social collaboration

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright May 30, 2014
Now that the hype has died down, what have we actually learned about making the most of social collaboration in the enterprise?

Team meeting around a table - via Steelcase
Many people — including my diginomica colleague Den Howlett — remain skeptical of the value of introducing social collaboraton tools into the enterprise. You can't really blame them: the benefits were massively oversold during the hype cycle years of Enterprise 2.0 and social business.

Like any technology, social tools won't magically transform an enterprise. But if deployed in the right way, they can still play a valuable role.

I start from the view that 'social' is not a technology, it's a description of how people interact with each other. We have always collaborated in organizations — otherwise why bother to form them at all? As office automation technology has evolved, we've taken advantage of tools such as telephones and voicemail, email, video conferencing, groupware, intranets, project management software and web meetings to find more efficient ways of doing so.

Today's social collaboration tools are just a further evolution in the technology. The only reason for deploying them, as before, is to make these interactions more productive. Given the limitations of email, intranets, web meetings and the like, that shouldn't be difficult to achieve.

But you can't just roll these tools out into the enterprise and hope for the best. Just like any other new tool, people — and the organizations they work for — must learn to use them effectively. Individuals have to be persuaded that it's worth investing the effort to master them and bring them into their work routines. It's inevitable that some will resent the disruption to their established processes.

Based on evidence from some of the enterprise stories diginomica has reported over the past year, here are five key ingredients that seem to be crucial elements in ensuring the success of deploying enterprise-wide social collaboration tools.

1. Give people a reason to change

Upgrading or introducing new technology without any rationale will only cause resentment — even among millennials and others who you might have thought would automatically prefer to work with social media platforms. As Den argued in his piece earlier this week, some organizations need an IBM Moment.

When The Weather Company replaced its previous email and collaboration systems with Google Apps, CIO Bryson Koehler knew from previous experience that the move had to be part of a wider cultural change across the organization. That was driven by a program of change put in place by new management:

We had to go through a cultural revolution. We needed to increase the velocity of change in our business, be able to multitask on many different projects simultaneously, increase the number of teams we work with both inside and outside the company.

This is typical of successful projects, according to Karl Lamberth, SVP global delivery for Google Apps at Cloud Sherpas, which helped the Weather Company with the implementation:

A change imperative is a critical component in making it successful — a strong rationale at an organization level and at an individual level on why I am going to invest the time and effort into making this change.

2. Make executive buy-in visible

Any project will founder without top-level management support, but this means more than having an executive sponsor pulling levers behind the scenes. With social media projects, top management has to be seen to be actively participating, to encourage others to follow their lead.

Like many distributed global businesses, WPP-owned research agency Millward Brown uses a social community platform to help improve cohesion and access to expertise across the organization. Frequent blog postings, pictures and callouts to individuals by the CEO has helped drive engagement in the Jive-based community, says Deepa Ramesh, global community manager:

A lot of our employees feel more connected and he feels more connected.

3. Expect middle management to resist

Middle managers are often the most resistant to the introduction of social collaboration as it challenges the existing hierarchies and lines of communication.

Top management values the ability to connect directly with grassroots employees and feel more in touch with the mood of the organization. Those in the lower echelons value the opportunity to get noticed and build connections across the organization. See who's being bypassed in each of those cases?

Middle managers find themselves losing influence at the same time as having to learn new skills that run counter to the way they're used to operating. They need to be persuaded that all this disruption is worth the trouble, says Julie Guegan, internal communication officer for human resources at The European Commission, which has been using Yammer for internal communications since 2009:

The middle manager feels threatened by this new way of working and communicating. The challenge is to show them how they can benefit.

4. Show business value

Being able to point to concrete examples that will persuade those with most to lose is thus one of the most critical success factors in rolling out a social collaboration platform. If they can see the upside, they will be motivated to make use of it.

Kim England, head of internal community and collaboration at learning and publishing group Pearson, says that you have to be able to demonstrate use cases that will address their pain points.:

Those were the people that really needed the hard evidence ... Once you've got those use cases, getting those other users on board is much easier.

In Pearson's case, she is able to show examples of how the platform helps connecting with distributed workers, keeping a team motivated, or countering product development bottlenecks. At the European Commission, discovering and sharing learning materials or courses and developing rebuttals for local media stories were two strong use cases.

Maintain engagement over time

In many organizations, it can take time to develop those use cases. The Yammer user base has many examples of user communities that started small, began to prove value and then spread out into wider participation.

That does mean investing time and resources into nurturing the community in its early days and continuing to ensure that people stay engaged. Therefore the rationale needs to be clear, at least to the early adopters.

Social collaboration is most likely to take root in organizations that have a pressing need to improve internal communications around shared knowledge and projects. It's especially useful as a replacement or supplement to existing collaboration technologies that have grown long-in-the-tooth, or too fragmented due to local autonomy when they were originally procured or a pattern of mergers and acquisitions.

But it does require new skills and it introduces new ways of getting things done into the enterprise. Therefore someone needs to take charge, whether that's the CIO, HR or some other function. Without the right drive, backing and investment, engagement will falter and the project will fail, providing even more fodder for those who question the value of social collaboration.

Image credit: courtesy of Steelcase.

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