3 Benefits of an Enterprise Social Network that you Simply Can’t Measure

You already know that an enterprise social network provides value for your company.

As I wrote about last week, both tangible value (ROI, less time spent on email, etc.) and intangible value (work satisfaction, deeper colleague relationships) are valid results that a company should expect post-launch. However, we’ve come to a point when most employees and executives know enough about social networks to be dangerous; they no longer accept at face value the argument that a community will improve transparency or ideation just because. They’ve started to ask the deeper questions: “Why?” “How?” These questions can stop the unarmed evangelist in his or her tracks. But have no fear – in this post, I’ll provide some of the critical answers to the hard “why?” and “how?” questions about the intangible value of an enterprise social network, clarifying the three most common “unseen value” arguments with specific research and data to back them up.

The Usual Suspects: 3 Commonly Cited Values of an Enterprise Social Network

Anyone who has ever dealt with an internal community has heard of these three common justifications, and has probably used them to convince their leaders and constituents to jump in and use the tool. Here’s an in-depth look at the reasons behind the value, which will help you educate your user-base more deeply. Each one comes with a “What happens” (the typical argument you’ll hear), a “Why does this happen?” which is the important and often-missing piece of the argument, and finally, a specific resource that you can lean on to justify your answers.

An Enterprise Social Network Will:

1. INCREASE KNOWLEDGE-SHARING

What happens: As employees join an online community, they share more information with more people because of the “broadcast” nature of the tool. Questions and posts are, by default, open for many to view and respond to. Nuggets of knowledge and tacit information are stored in broad daylight, available for all to see. Knowledge is spread more widely, and more openly, than ever before. Why does this happen? An increase in knowledge-sharing is not simply a byproduct of having an open community. The reason that knowledge-sharing occurs more rapidly and more broadly lies in the study of social network analysis – the mapping and understanding of how people connect inside an organization. As employees join an online community, the “nodes” between individuals are reduced . That means that employees who previously did not know each other except through another person can now directly connect, cutting out middlemen across the whole company. It’s like a game of telephone, except we’ve removed the five people in between the speaker and the final listener. When an internal social network is deployed, employees can seek fewer people to get the answers and resources they need. The result is that knowledge sharing becomes a personal activity that can be achieved individually, requiring less human management to ask for connections and contact information. The Resource: The single-best article that I’ve used for research into enterprise social networks is a Harvard Business Review article from 2002 called “The People Who Make Organizations Go – or Stop” (subscription required). I highly recommend the complete article for all community managers.

2. OPEN UP THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION

What Happens: An enterprise social network is designed to connect employees across teams, departments, and physical geography. It is the only place inside a company where all employees can gather to meet each other, learn about each other, and create open dialogue with people that they may have never meet before. Instead of using the company directory to find new people and experts, employees can browse, seek and discover official information combined with contributed content to really learn about members’ expertise. Why this Happens: What’s really being facilitated, and what’s important about this benefit of an enterprise social network, is that the community gives employees power to communicate outside of the corporate hierarchy. In most companies, a leader may be the highest-level person that an employee talks to. Very rarely does an average employee have the social capital to physically find a senior level leader and ask him or her a question. Employees tend to communicate only with those known to them in the absence of an open communication hub. An online community has been shown to stimulate the interactions between employees that reside further apart in the corporate hierarchy. A community opens up new lines of communication, which helps each individual create a more robust personal network of connections. The Resource: Bell Labs conducted a quantitative study in 2011 of the Jive-powered community for Alcatel-Lucent, seeking to understand behavior based on hierarchical position. The study, called "Enterprise Social Network Analysis and Modeling: A Tale of Two Graphs," can be found in its entirety on the web.

3. FOSTER INNOVATION

What Happens: Companies hire employees because they are smart. They have knowledge, and they have new ideas that will add value. Companies hope to nurture the talents and capitalize on the novel ideas that employees produce. An enterprise social network helps employees ideate with their colleagues across the globe in an open way that wasn’t possible before, building on the thoughts and experiences of thousands of others who can now collaborate together on innovative ideas. Why this Happens: They magic ingredient for fostering innovation in an online community is the concept of serendipity. Serendipity is the art of discovering something useful, surprising, or pleasant while not actually searching for it. Serendipity is possible like never before in an enterprise social network because of the simple fact that the combination of many employees across boundaries allows for more random and unexpected meetings of minds. And, in an online community, it is the mixing of talent (people) and ideas (their individual, creative output) that serendipitously fuels innovation more quickly and easily than ever before. Ultimately, serendipity and the “aha!” moment give employees a feeling of pride when they develop new and exciting ideas that move the company forward. The Resource: Another gem from Harvard Business Review, the article “Managing Corporate Social Networks” (subscription required) from 2008 reviews how companies can and should manage the relationships amongst employees. This article discusses how companies must manage the informal social network that inevitably exists amongst employees, at it can be a powerful force that brings benefit and harm to an organization.

Now, evangelists have the arguments and research to back up the most common value-drivers for an enterprise social network. In one additional article to be published next week, I’ll address two relatively unknown, but documented, benefits of an online employee community that will add further credibility to any evangelist’s case for implementation.

Photo Credit: Image: 'Finger face having an idea' Found on flickrcc.net