The Value of an Enterprise Social Network: From Happiness to Crisis and Back

When opposing states of peace and crisis can appear at any moment, it’s critical that companies and their employees are able to transition between them as seamlessly as possible. This is where an enterprise social network provides completely invisible yet incredibly powerful value to a company.

In today’s fast-moving, ever-changing world, a typical company can exist with a calm routine in one moment and then suddenly propel its entire workforce into a tornado-like schizophrenia, sucking employees into a vortex of calamity until the storm passes. The modern workplace, with its nearly simultaneous ups and downs, and parallel hopes and fears, is where the best and worst of times dance delicately across from each other, one threatening to lunge across and overtake the other at any given moment.

When opposing states of peace and crisis can appear at any moment, it’s critical that companies and their employees are able to transition between them as seamlessly as possible. To successfully navigate a challenging situation – whether external (a global economic crisis) or internal (a product defect), employees must work efficiently and rapidly to mitigate the situation.

This is where an enterprise social network provides completely invisible yet incredibly powerful value to a company. In the simplest of terms, an enterprise social network helps employees feel happy and helps them make friends. This may sound like a lesson from the playground about how to be nice to others. But this is not just child’s play. Did you know that an enterprise social network can help companies foster and maintain a pleasant work environment, one where employee satisfaction and happiness are sought for the purpose of driving a better customer experience? And that this sense of internal happiness and connectedness gives the workforce as a whole better preparation for adapting to sudden crisis situations that fall outside of the normal course of business?

Here, I’ll share two completely immeasurable benefits that are rarely, if ever, cited when building a business case for enterprise social networks. The corresponding research is also provided, giving social business evangelists and practitioners more ammunition in their knowledge armory when presenting to leaders and stakeholders.

Happiness as a Business Objective

Tony Hsieh, CEO of retailer Zappos, is well-known for his concept of “Return on Community.” This principle says that happier employees create a better customer experience, and in this turn creates a stronger employee culture. Hsieh has found tremendous value in applying this principle to his business from both a financial and cultural perspective. When acquired by Amazon in 2009, the company reported $1B in sales – strong numbers that we can all appreciate indeed. At the same time, Zappos has been named a Fortune 100 “Best Place to Work” for several years, showing that cultural strength has also been achieved. Zappos has clearly been doing something right – and one major component of their success is the meticulous and thoughtful creation of a workplace conducive to happy employees.

Hsieh shuns the now-buzzword-concept of “work-life balance.” Instead, at Zappos, he “think[s] of it in terms of work/life integration,” because, “At the end of the day, it is just your life.” Zappos and Hseih have made a commitment to create a happy culture and happy employees by accepting that people don’t compartmentalize their work into an 8-hour block of their day, nor do they stop living their life as mom/dad/friend/self during the time that they’re physically at work. It is this environment and belief system that embody Zappos’ commitment to happiness.

So – what does this mean for a social business? When happiness is a value fostered and encouraged by a company, an enterprise social network helps bring together an already-strong community full of happy employees. It provides a place where employees can share ideas and thoughts, grievances and suggestions within a culture that already accepts this kind of participation and feedback. A community allows for openness and transparency, two critical aspects of any workplace seeking happiness as a business objective.

Further, an enterprise social network creates a dedicated location to quickly share and collaborate when a serendipitous “collision” occurs. Hsieh and Zappos have worked to build a small part of downtown Las Vegas into a fun, interactive joint work/living space where employees can do their jobs and live their personal lives inside the same physical boundaries. This meshing of employees and their social lives, both in and out of work hours, allows for physical human “collisions” to occur – moments when ideas and people meet unexpectedly at a coffee shop, in an office, or on the street. By ensuring that Zappos employees can literally collide with one another all day long, Hseih purports that there are about 1,000 Collisionable Hours available for every employee – hours that are not controlled by work but that may still be the spark that generates a great idea for the company. If you buy in to Hsieh’s argument, you can also believe that an enterprise social network creates a company-wide virtual space for additional collisions to happen 24-7-365. An enterprise social network creates not only one more location for collision, but it also becomes an instantly available repository for employees to document and share their collisions with the rest of the company. “We all have more to gain by interaction and connection with each other than staying siloed in our homes and offices,” notes Hseih. And though he is referring to the physical Zappos campus in downtown Las Vegas, the same principle holds true inside a company using an enterprise social network. Employees have more to gain by interacting and connecting with colleagues outside of the artificial siloes created by the traditional management and communication hierarchy.

Adaptation to Crisis Situations

“Crisis” refers to a situation, planned (major layoff) or unplanned (a strike or mass product recall) facing an organization which requires that the organization, under time constraints, engage in new, untested, unlearned behaviors in order to obtain or maintain its desired goal states. A crisis has immediate impact, disrupting the stability that glues employees together in equilibrium. The threat of change, power struggles and sudden shifts in normal behavior lead employees to defend their own resources and network connections as trust is eroded. When the balance is disrupted, collaboration screeches to a halt as employees evaluate the situation and how they will personally be impacted.

However, adaptation to a business crisis requires increased employee cooperation rather than the self-preservation that instinctually occurs. To get through the crisis, there is a need for increased connectedness between teams and units that were previously unconnected. People simply must work together to solve the problem. Forced compliance to cooperative behavior is not an efficient answer to the problem, as it can backfire and lead to resentment.

What CAN work is capitalizing on the strong friendship ties that exist across team and group boundaries. Yes – friendship amongst employees is the solution; with strong personal relationships amongst employees in disparate locations and teams, more trust and cooperation will be possible to navigate a crisis. Employee friendships create a greater ability to adapt to a new, challenging situation because of the inherent trust between people outside of the context of work. In a crisis, employees can lean on each other for answers, ideas, and action by relying on the social capital they’ve created on a personal level.

An enterprise social network clearly can help employees build and nurture friendships. Both work and non-work topics and groups allow employees with common goals and interests to unite and strengthen bonds. Especially when happiness is a business objective like at Zappos, friendships are a natural byproduct of an employee community. The result is a workforce more primed to operate smoothly in a crisis situation. Further, it’s been shown that in a crisis, an abundance of external ties is more effective and important than internal ties. In the context of the workplace, this means that employees with many friends and colleagues outside of their own team or department can offer more value in a crisis because they have the social capital to lean on employees with different types of skills and knowledge. An enterprise social network clearly offers the opportunity for employees to network with others outside of their own function and location, fostering the important connections that will be relied upon in a crisis situation.

Measuring Up

In my previous two articles in this series (here and here), I wrote about the intangible benefits of an enterprise social network. They’re plentiful, and they’re real, but they simply cannot be measured with numbers. However, using these posts as well as the corresponding research, community managers and enterprise social networking evangelists can now present to stakeholders something that they’ve always known – an online employee community is a powerful resource that strengthens and empowers the workforce to achieve great things.

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