The ESN Value-Creation Framework: Defining Long and Short-Term Value from Your Community

In the world of enterprise social networks, theories and ideas abound about the value of investing in, launching, and maintaining an employee social community. Research has documented significant ROI gains, from better productivity measures and cost savings due to lower attrition. Vendors, analysts and evangelists agree that enterprise social networks allow for better and faster information sharing as well as happier employees.  There is no argument that enterprise social networks create both tangible and intangible benefits for a company.

The tangible ROI cases are clear. Fewer emails and meetings lead to efficiency gains that can be documented based on relatively simple time and salary calculations. However, it’s the intangible benefits that are easily challenged and overlooked because they cannot be measured by traditional corporate metrics. How do you prove to a skeptical executive that an employee community can create positive outcomes for the company that aren’t tied to dollars and cents, gains and losses? It’s easy to cite the reasons provided by vendors, customers and analysts, but what’s missing is the “how?” and the “why?” component. How are benefits achieved? Why are they important for our company?

In this post, I’ll present enterprise social network practitioners with a framework that breaks down specific work activities into the short and long term values gained. By deconstructing simple activities, and applying one’s knowledge of the company’s culture, community managers can clearly demonstrate how intangible value is realized in the short term and over the long term. This 3-step exercise will be unique for every company, and there is no single “right” answer, but with some critical thinking, practitioners will be able to extract and explain value creation and realization with ease. This framework and resulting value explanations can be used to justify the initial launch of an enterprise social network, funding an expansion of an existing small social network, or simply to demonstrate to employees and leaders that their time and effort inside the community provides value to the company and individuals.

Step 1: Separate activities into visible and invisible components

To get started with the framework, practitioners need to learn to separate every activity that an employee performs into two parts: the visible and the invisible.

“Work” or work products, such as presentations or documents, are the visible components of an employee’s activity. Employees write, attend meetings, and produce a physical representation of their actions, which can also be seen by their physical attendance and presence while performing these activities. Typically, these visible components are how an employee is measured and judged in the workplace. Because these activities occur relatively quickly after the launch of a social network, and provide a fast, simple way to show progress, they reflect network’s short-term value. However, they are not the most important value-driver for an enterprise social network over the long term.

“People” create the invisible part of the equation, with their sentiments, feelings, and the relationships that they have with other employees outside of the hierarchy. This informal social network is a conduit through which information flows, but it can’t be seen. Everything that an employee does is impacted by the invisible relationships and invisible sentiments that motivate and empower them silently and immeasurably. While companies rarely assess individuals on what can’t be seen, it’s critical to realize that the invisible actions and outcomes are the source of long-term value for an enterprise social network. Over time, the invisible components are what drive employee motivation, longevity, happiness at work, and a desire to achieve.

Step 2: Select specific use cases for your company

With the knowledge that any activity must be divided into its parts, practitioners should select a handful of distinct use cases or examples to explicate with the framework. Interview employees across teams and departments where social network usage and engagement is high, seeking examples of tangible outcomes that are easily defined. It’s important to find these measurable examples because they will resonate with employees and leaders who may not yet have considered the invisible value that stems from tangible business outcomes.

Practitioners should ask employees about how the social network facilitated the project to achieve these tangible outcomes. Then, the line of questioning should begin to focus on the invisible behaviors and feelings that played a role, or that resulted, from the activity. Was the employee satisfied with his or her performance? Did it feel good for teammates to share congratulations? Was he or she using informal connections, and did this work strengthen any ties across teams or personal relationships? How did this activity impact the employee’s sentiments about working at the company? These questions about the invisible aspects of work get to the heart of long-term social network value.

It’s critical that these business cases and examples be clearly vetted to lend credibility to the value-creation argument. It is easy to hypothesize on what the intangible values may be of a certain activity, or to speculate what leaders may want to hear. Having a very specific example where tangible results are available (presentations, customer wins, etc.) and where primary research has been conducted into the relevant employees’ intangible actions and sentiments (via interviews) will create a well-rounded and credible example.

Step 3: Apply the ESN Value-Creation Framework to the use cases

With the visible and invisible value details in hand, a practitioner can begin to put the puzzle pieces together within the value framework. The framework lays out the “how” and the “why” components that are so often missing from justifications for enterprise social networks. A simple, complete framework for a single use case may look something like this:

Example specificity will add credibility to each value-creation argument. Practitioners should aim to demonstrate the value achieved by the team involved in the example, and then extrapolate that into value realized by the company as a whole. With multiple examples laid out in this way, both the short-term and long-term values afforded by an enterprise social network can be made clear to audiences of all types.

In part 2 of this post later this week, I’ll share several examples of long-term value created by enterprise social networks based on academic research and social networking analysis. These will be helpful for companies who have yet to launch a community and need impartial rationale to convince leadership that an enterprise social network is a valuable addition to the human and information ecosystem inside a company.