What is an Enterprise Social Network (ESN) and what value do they deliver?
By Robert Dumigan.
Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) allow employees to connect with each other and communicate and collaborate through a range of social media tools such as discussion threads, social feeds and blogs. But how do they provide value and does your organisation really need one? In this article we take a deep dive into the ESN and look at what it is, its key features and how it can deliver value to both organizations and employees.
What is an Enterprise Social Network?
Most people are familiar with external-facing social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. In these social networks people connect or follow each other and can then communicate using a variety of different tools.
An ESN is effectively a private social network that has been implemented within an organisation and can only be accessed by staff. Here employees follow each other and use a variety of different tools to communicate and stay updated.
There are variety of different products available that can be considered to be Enterprise Social Networks, or that have ESN capabilities. These include Workplace from Facebook, Yammer, Microsoft Teams, Staffbase, Slack and Workvivo.
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The history of enterprise social networking
The space is relatively mature; Yammer has been around in one form or another since 2008 (it was subsequently acquired by Microsoft) and Facebook launched their Workplace offering in 2016. However, the space is still evolving and innovating. Eric Yuan, The CEO of Zoom (Valued at $14 Billion) recognized the potential in ESN’s for enterprise collaboration, investing $500,000 of his own money in Workvivo.
As well as specific ESN products, many existing company intranets may also have a social networking component, (“social intranet”) although this may involve integrating a tool like Yammer or using a platform with extensive capabilities like Workvivo. More “traditional” intranets don’t have social capabilities and are often regarded as outdated and a “clunky” way of communicating.
Employees also can interact with customers and contacts using external social media tools like LinkedIn or Facebook. Usually these interactions are not considered to be part of the ESN, although as we will see ESNs can play a part in driving employee advocacy.
Why do organizations introduce Enterprise Social Networks?
One misconception that some have about ESNs is that somehow, they are not a “real” work tool. This is simply not true. Usually organizations introduce ESNs to enhance communication and collaboration across different locations and hierarchies, driving more efficient and effective work. For, example, an ESN is often used a way to reduce the number of emails sent internally, allowing employees to communicate in quicker and more effective ways.
Enterprise Social Networks can also:
- provide workspaces for specific groups
- help teams to collaborate on projects
- provide the ability for employees to ask questions and find people right across the organisation
- support professional communities
- connect employees to key resources that support their everyday work, crossing over with some of the aims of more common intranets.
ESN also support employee engagement, community and culture amplification, for example allowing employees to socialize with each other, or give kudos for a job well done.
What are the major benefits of an enterprise social networking?
Nurturing and amplifying corporate culture
Corporate culture is such an important aspect of an organization’s success. For small companies, with small teams it can be relatively easy to maintain a company culture, especially if all employees are based in the same office.
But for larger organisations with multiple locations or where offices are located across many countries and where different languages are spoken, it can a real challenge. It is also difficult when a company has been formed through a merger or multiple acquisitions and where legacy cultures still exist.
Similarly, companies that grow rapidly often find themselves at a cultural crossroads, trying to preserve their original friendly or start-up culture while adopting a more corporate approach.
ESNs can make a massive contribution in maintaining a strong company culture or helping to evolve a new one.
The cultural impact of an ESN can be highly significant, especially in hierarchical and siloed organisations where there is a general lack of transparency. An ESN breaks down siloes and barriers that occur across locations, divisions, teams, brands and hierarchies in ways that other communication channels such as emails and intranets simply cannot, creating a far more transparent, networked and agile organisation.
Because an ESN reflects what the entire workforce are doing and thinking rather than a give you a sanitised, corporate and unauthentic view of your organizational culture, ESNs can have a much deeper impact. They show the real ways employees live out values, they allow leaders to listen and be themselves, they drive a sense of community and allow new hires to quickly understand and get a real taste of the culture of your company, regardless of their location.
Driving transparency and employee engagement
An ESN also establishes an unparalleled level of transparency across all levels of employees, which in turn can drive a sense of being part of something bigger, underpinning employee engagement.
Imagine being part of a company with thousands of employees like VMware or Salesforce, and your manager shares some great work that you did, which then gets a comment like “Great job, really impressive work” from your CEO.
The kind of transparency afforded by an internal social network can really change perceptions of how employees feel about the organization they work for and its leadership. Employees feel less like a little cog in a bit machine, and more like a valued employee.
Similarly, an ESN can help employees feel like they are being listened to and being trusted.
For example, an ESN can be used by leadership to ask important questions that lead to debates and input into future company strategy, or where employees can contribute ideas that can lead to real change or key initiatives.
Using polls and other feedback mechanisms via an ESN means employees can influence everything from a full-on organisational strategic pivot to what foods should be included on the menu at the annual company off-site weekend.
A solid framework for communication
Enterprise Social Networks provide a highly effective platform for the open and diverse communication that happens in every organization.
Rather than blitzing employees’ inboxes with hard-to-follow email threads, an ESN allows employees to have concise conversations that are displayed clearly on an activity feed.
The ability to create groups related to specific tasks allows the right people to be involved in the projects. Groups can be used for both work and social purposes.
For example the marketing team might create a group to discuss the content marketing calendar, the accounting team don’t need to be part of that group so wouldn’t be notified of updates within this group.
From a social perspective, maybe Jim from Marketing and Pam from Accounting both share an interest in the NFL; they might decide to create a fantasy football group that incorporates employees from all departments across all locations.
Whether for business or social communication, an Enterprise Social Network will provide a solid, “everything in one place” platform for communication.
An ESN also helps support internal communications, providing important news and updates from leaders.
Company-wide knowledge sharing
ESNs are a prime tool for knowledge sharing and learning, particularly in large organizations with multiple locations.
If for example the EMEA sales team developed a new outbound lead generation process that generated 50% more leads, than the processes could easily be shared across the ESN by to other sales teams in different countries.
What makes an ESN so powerful is not only the speed and ease with which this happens – a new standard operating procedure and best practice could be written and uploaded into a group space within an hour – but also the US Team could suggest an improvement that would make the process even better.
Knowledge and learning can also be better embedded. The relevant groups on the ESN, can facilitate team members from other departments to ask follow-up questions about the processes to the team that created it. The answers are open for all team members to see, allowing for even greater knowledge sharing.
As well as all of the above, the ESN’s feed can allow upper management to give kudos to the sales team that developed the process.
Tapping into expertise
Knowledge sharing can be key for new employees to settle into their role or for employees to tap the expertise of specialists, right across the world.
Take the example of a new sales rep who’s speaking with a prospect about a product, but gets asked a question that she hasn’t encountered before.
Then let’s say the person sitting next to her is also new and doesn’t know the answer either and the 5-year veteran who sits on the other side is out to lunch, so how can the new sales rep find the answer?
With an Enterprise Social Network, our new sales rep can easily put the question out there and crowdsource the answer from anyone in the company, regardless of whether they are based on the same floor as her, or in a completely different country.
Similarly, an employee might need to source a person who can speak Latvian, an expert on the marine industry, even someone who knows how to print double-sided on an ancient model of photocopier. These might sound obscure examples, but they are the kind of questions that come up every day in any medium-sized or large organization.
Finding these people by email is a nightmare and usually fruitless or ends up being too late. Using an ESN to crowdsource answers to all manner of questions is quick and easy. All of a sudden you can tap into the entire knowledge of your organisation and get answers to even the most obscure questions at great speed.
Remote Workers Feel Like Part of the Team
Put all of the above mentioned benefits of a corporate social network into a pot and mix them up, then you’ve got the perfect recipe for helping remote employees feel part of a team.
Remote employees won’t have the benefit of asking the person sitting next to them a quick question, but they can easily ask a question via the company’s ESN.
Remote employees won’t have access to a folder of printed sales scripts, but with an Enterprise Social Network they can access any document they need.
Remote employees can also more easily understand and buy in to the company culture, thanks to an ESN.
In the current conditions caused by the pandemic many of us are now working remotely. An ESN has never been so powerful as it is today.
Many of the benefits we mentioned above relate to culture and communication, but an ESN can also result in quantifiable benefits in driving efficiency through improving key processes within your organisation. More focused collaboration, knowledge-sharing and improved employee onboarding alone can significantly raise efficiency and drive productivity.
For example, take our sales team again. Let’s say they need to respond to an opportunity quickly. An ESN can help them assemble a team, find a specialist who can impress the client, they can put together a sales deck more quickly, access best-practice templates and then coordinate follow-up activities again via a special group set up for the opportunity.
See how easily you can supercharge your internal communications through an ESN without having to worry about if people will actually use it.
Fifteen key features of an Enterprise Social Network:
Access for everybody
An ESN should facilitate access for all your employees, otherwise you create a digital divide. For example, a true ESN should allow access for your frontline, deskless, disconnected employees, even if they don’t have corporate email identities.
An activity feed
Your ESN should have the familiar activity feed allowing employees to post content with images, videos, documents and more. The activity feed is often the heart of the ESN where employees can be kept up to speed on latest updates, events, activities and news.
Ability to interact and contribute
ESNs should allow employees to like, comment, and share content, as well as use features like #hashtags and @mentions to be able to get the best out of the tools.
Employee directory and profiles
An ESN should provide an employee directory so that employees can find about their co-workers, reach contact details, locate experts, and more.
Follows, communities and groups
Employees should be able to follow each other and also potentially topics, as well as being members of different communities and groups. These follows and memberships usually define what goes into the activity feed.
Give everyone a voice
An ESN should give everyone a voice not only with the ability to comment and publish status updates, but also through employee blogs and also the ability to ask questions. Everyone is a publisher.
Track goals and values
An ESN should help bring company goals and values to life with quick and easy links to posts, with the ability to align posted content aligned to a goal. This strategic alignment can provide an intuitive way for employees to plan their daily activities with company goals and values in mind.
Celebrate success and recognize outstanding performers
Features like shout outs, awards or badges can give an employee, space or team well-deserved public recognition and help them feel more engaged with the organization
Your ESN should allow you to collaborate with colleagues across locations and departments using groups, or workspaces. In Workvivo this feature is called Spaces and it can help you to share targeted updates, questions and shout-outs. Ideally, an ESN should allow you to post content across multiple groups too.
Integration with other platforms
Ideally your Enterprise Social Network should have out-of-the-box integrations with other communication apps and content management systems so employees only have one place to go to get core information.
For example, Workvivo comes with integrations with SharePoint, Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. It provides centralized access to apps and content directly from the activity feed, as well as real-time chat integration with Slack and Teams. This allows you to seamlessly communicate through best of breed messaging technology direct from the activity feed.
Supporting leadership communications
An ESN should allow your CEO or leadership team to be able to communicate and create dialogue with all employees in a variety of different ways, such as updates, blogs and even town halls. For example, with Workvivo you can also easily embed Zoom meeting invites and initiate meetings directly from content posts or news and events postings such as Town Halls.
A good ESN should allow you to analyze behaviors such as active users, logins, posts, likes, shout-outs and comments to see trends over time, by location, department, or time of day. This gives you valuable insight into better communications but also trending topics across the enterprise.
Employee feedback and pulse checks
Employee feedback should be easy to gather. Workvivo has quick and easy surveys that enable frequent pulse checks on employee sentiment, allowing organizations to garner valuable feedback from employees.
Foster employee advocacy
Social advocacy can allow you to amplify specific internal content by enabling employees to share to their personal social channels such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
As well as that, employees can be a great driving force behind the success of your hiring efforts. If you need to hire a new employee, a social advocacy feature can allow your employees to share the job post across their own social networks.
Incorporate your own branding
Your Enterprise Social Network should be fully customizable, allowing you to add your own branding including your logo, backgrounds, labels, and colours. This can be a strong way to reinforce brand and tone across your business.
The value of the Enterprise Social Network: Conclusion
Your ESN should be an all-encompassing employee app, allowing employees across the organization to communicate seamlessly, whether they are in-house or remote, whether they sit a desk or are out in the field.
All of this is possible with Workvivo.
Book a demo of our employee app today to see how you can build your very own Enterprise Social Network.