A stake in the ground - six hurdles to reversing ESN failure

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy July 8, 2014
Identifying the hurdles that impede enterprise social networking is a starting point for success. Here's a stake in the ground.

Another day, another big news headline: enterprise social networking (ESN) isn't working.

In a great IT industry irony, enterprise social networking (ESN) software, designed to boost interaction and collaboration, is often ignored by users and ends up forgotten like the proverbial ghost town with rolling tumbleweeds.

Surprised? I'm not but in order to understand why failure is the norm we need to step back.

Something around 15 years ago, I remember listening to a very well respected technology analyst say that some $3 trillion (that's 3 with 12 zeros behind it) was locked up in the global supply chain. The answer? Supply chain management systems. A big part of the takeaways at the time came in a couple of top line flavors:

  1. Channel masters would impose technology upon the supply chain to reduce friction.
  2. Supply chains would need to become far more collaborative.

At the time, both arguments were compelling. At the time, we did not have a burgeoning internet.

In turn, we saw channel masters do exactly as predicted which in turn allowed some businesses to develop advanced and sophisticated predictive demand systems. The stand out example was and remains WalMart. Unfortunately, very few channel masters have or had the scale and power to build and enforce the kinds of systems needed to achieve significant benefit. Plus, they were hideously expensive since most were predicated on EDI solutions.

Supply chains - or rather business networks - have been around for many years but were only ever deployed on a specific use case basis. The old Ford design story springs to mind where Ford engaged with its global network of suppliers to not only design but bring to market a new model using virtual methods. They went from nothing to market in 18 months - almost unheard of at the time.

My point is that the concept of collaboration, its value and the basic understandings around what needs to happen are nothing new. So why do so many current projects fail?

In 2010, I outlined a slew of reasons why collaboration fails. At the time, I was deconstructing the many failures inside the US security services post 9/11 and quoted the then NYT report which said:

Turf wars between U.S. spy and law enforcement agencies are nothing new. But lapses that allowed a Nigerian suspect to board a Detroit-bound plane with a bomb on Christmas Day, and the finger-pointing that followed, have raised questions about sweeping changes made to improve security and intelligence- sharing after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

That was just the tip of a very unpleasant iceberg but it is one large factor that I have seen played out time and again inside business attempting to introduce ESN as a way of opening up the internal intellectual value vaults.

The other factor I have consistently cited is that of context and process. My mantra here is that content without context in process is meaningless. Just because an ESN exists doesn't mean it will deliver value, even when it is used. My argument is that you need all three pieces of the puzzle in place i.e. content, context and process in order to deliver value.

Some companies, notably SAP and, to a limited extent Salesforce, have recognized this. Here I am thinking about how SAP has embedded social elements aka Jam into familiar processes and how Salesforce Chatter has evolved inside sales processes. While moderately successful, these efforts are only scratching the surface. They address current and obvious friction but without necessarily demanding a full blown rethink of how a business operates. To that extent, they provide incremental improvement that can be built upon but which is limiting.

The ESN mavens for their part recognize that the real prize comes from unlocking intellectual capital inside the organization. Unfortunately, most of those who make noise in this space cannot answer the vitally important question: how do we get people to respond?

Jon Husband, one of the very few who do understand what is happening said on Facebook:

The enterprise productivity software arena has become the ERP era all over again but with the always-and-forever messy variable of the human being. And so now the landscape resembles the first wave of mostly-failed ERP implementations circa 1995 - 2000.

Same metaphors, same methods / approaches, same results.

That produced a flurry of conversation with Rachel Happe claiming that success can be found. I'm sure that's true just as we saw and continue to see success among early adopters and those businesses willing and able to bring real change. But as Rachel acknowledges, these are a small minority. It is just too easy to view ESN as difficult (true) complex (true) demanding of top management time (true) and fraught with risk (true) as the immediate way to snuff out otherwise well meaning projects. It is the norm.

Occasional diginomica contributor Euan Semple took a different stance. He argues, again on Facebook:

Someone has to care...

...Too often I see managers of various persuasions (marketing, comms, even IT) being coerced into leading major social projects that are approached like every other large scale IT project (of which historically something like 72% fail!) They do this with vague ideas of improving communication or collaboration but get sucked into worrying about the tools. Instead they should be focussing on helping staff make the significant cultural leap from process focussed caution to the open and mature dialogue that you really want if they are going to address and sort their real problems.

He is equally correct. And then I saw an intriguing comment in the long comment thread where Matt Ballantine argued:

A couple of months ago I read an analysis that seemed to indicate that much of the "collaboration" enterprise software world seems to be reverting to type. Rather than fluid, chaotic systems around networks and the inter-personal, increasingly they are about process and measurement and control - project management tools, basically.

Whilst those no doubt have use and purpose (although their efficacy is often hugely overestimated), this feels like the business world reverting to type. I don't think it's enough to just say that's an "IT" problem. This is a much more fundamental issue about the way in which we have yet another generation of managers being churned out of business schools believing the BS of "you can only manage what you can measure". IT may be being used as a channel to deliver micro-management and the illusion of control, but I think increasingly it is a reflection of a broader business desire to try to put an impossible order and structure onto the complex and chaotic.

[My emphasis added]

The nuance continued but it was at this point that I started to wonder why 'we' have not identified a broad set of hurdles that would represent predictors of failure for the majority of organizations. They exist here and there for sure. On the flip side, Semple thinks success is about Trojan mice. I get that argument but at its purest, it is lacking for many organizations that have established structures for purposeful reasons.

What are the hurdles to effective change?

Many of the following list items can apply across multiple enterprise project types. In this case however, I am attempting to provide some focus for those considering ESN.

  1. Why are we doing any of this? Unless there is a strategic outcome in mind that makes sense to everyone then all you will ever do is tinker around the edges. But then you can still pick off elements of that strategy as a starting point.
  2. Can management rid itself of the concentration of attention to short term metrics? Playing to the financial community alone is a guaranteed course of failure. Management that is strong enough and smart enough to clearly communicate value to all stakeholders stands a much better chance than the CEO whose only purpose in life is to brown nose Wall Street. Unfortunately, I suspect the vast majority of managements are too weak to get past this one.
  3. How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the bulb has got to want to change. In other words, management cannot simply like the idea, it must want change and want it badly.
  4. Looking at employees - what's in it for them? Without clear value for me, I ain't playing the way you want me to. I'll revert to type and game the system. Ergo, the business loses albeit it may not see that until it is too late. How many organizations do you know that claim they hate works politics yet are riven with a jockeying for position among management layers?
  5. Does management truly value its employees? The sad answer is often no. We see this across multiple dimensions not least the furore around Hobby Lobby. If you don't care or care enough, you won't succeed.
  6. Where are the substantially influential groups of forward thinkers that can provide solid counsel? Right now, I see most of them on Facebook yet I can guarantee that's not the place the decision makers turn in order to find knowledge or insight. What's worse, that group doesn't seem to be growing substantially. Instead, I see plenty of ESN mavens doing little more than trotting out 'the obvious' but with little depth to their understanding of business dynamics. Or worse still, yelling about some mythical oncoming revolution.


What next?

  • That depends. The six hurdles I've outlined beg many many questions in which it is too easy to get bogged down in detail that should be sidelined at this point. Organizations brave enough to face those hurdles may well find their ability to change is severely limited without applying organizational surgery.
  • Have you noticed that in all the above, I have barely made reference to the technology? There's a reason. Adding a tech layer to any problem is a guaranteed fail unless the business has got to grips with the problems outlined above. It reinforces Husband's conclusions.
  • Have you also noticed I've not talked about measuring outcomes? I believe that is a movable feast with potential to become additive over time. However, starting with rigid requirements is not going to help because it concentrates the mind in the wrong way. Setting incremental goals may well be a better way to assess success but will require an open mind to future possibilities.
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