What is an Enterprise Social Network?

Written by Kieran

On 14th January 2019

Since the advent of social media, and the digital empowerment it brought to people and communities across the world, software companies have been attempting to bring the same capabilities and benefits into the workplace. These software solutions are broadly known as Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs), but this is a very broad and wooly category. So what exactly are ESNs? Obviously, they’re about making social networks in the enterprise, but the key word is “social”.

Typical features of an ESN

The typical features that make ESNs social include:

  • Rich profiles capturing photographs and information about people and their roles within the organisation.
  • Open and closed groups representing different topics and interests that people can choose to join or be invited to.
  • Post content openly, e.g. simple text, images, videos, web documents, blog posts, files, and more. This gives access to crowd intelligence – “ask the hive mind.”
  • Comment on any kind of content to provide feedback and have discussions around it.
  • “like” any kind of content as “micro feedback”
  • “follow” people, places, and content to be notified when something happens.
  • Newsfeeds that aggregate updates from the people, places, and content that you follow.
  • Search for content, people, and groups through one universal search function
  • @mention people in text to grab their attention.
  • #hashtag to build associations between content organically, sometimes referred to as “folksonomy
  • Notifications to filter alerts and “manage the noise”.

Together, these features provide people with a lot of personalisation, because they choose what to follow and can control notifications. Most ESNs also provide some automated personalisation, using artificial intelligence (AI) to learn about what’s of most interest to people and prioritise this content in news feeds and search results. AI can also make recommendations for people, places, and content to visit.

ESNs are designed to connect people within an organisation. The focus is very much on people and how they interact with each other. ESNs provide a digital location for people to connect with each other, have conversations, and share content in open forums. When they are well-adopted, they give rise to lively employee communities, and a host of benefits that arise from network effects. Some ESNs also provide collaborative workspaces for productivity and integrations with other applications.

Types of ESN

There are many products on the market that fall under the ESN umbrella, but not all provide for the same outcomes. Sei Mani categorise ESN capabilities in three ways:

1. Social intranet

2. Collaborative workspace

3. Employee community

Different ESNs usually have some capability in each area but emphasise one over the others.

Social intranets, such as Unily, Igloo and Jostle, prioritise company news, information, and documentation. The emphasis is top-down communication with the social element primarily in the form of “following” relevant content and locations, liking and commenting, and publishing new content in a managed way.

Collaborative workspaces prioritise working together on documents and other deliverables, making decisions, and getting things done. The social element comes in the form of questions, discussions, comments, likes, etc. around the content being worked on, and the newsfeeds and notifications that are generated from them. Examples of collaborative workspace ESNs include Jive and SharePoint.

Employee communities prioritise creating connections between employees rather than corporate content and work deliverables. This is a more bottom-up approach as the content is driven by the community rather than the organisation. It develops organically and virally. Company news and collaborative work do appear in employee communities, such as Workplace by Facebook and Yammer, but are by-products of the connections that people choose to make.

The benefits of using ESNs

So what are the benefits to people? Here are several we see playing out with our customers:

  • Bird’s eye view. Newsfeeds give you peripheral vision of what’s going on outside of your immediate team.
  • Zoom in. When skimming your news feed you can zoom in on the most interesting updates, find out the detail, and join the conversation.
  • Timely intervention. The ability to have your say when it matters most – no more “if I had known about this earlier I would have said XYZ.”
  • Faster decision making. The right people can brought together rapidly and have conversations around relevant content.
  • Collective memory. It’s easy to search for past conversations and content. Less knowledge ends up in the “email graveyard”.
  • Crowd intelligence. Get answers, ideas, and solutions by simply asking the community.
  • Live pulse check. Always know what’s hot and what’s not in the community.

Where do ESNs fit in the digital workplace?

In a recent blog post, I discussed our digital workplaces framework:

The three Cs: Coordination, Collaboration, Community.

Types of interaction: Search and connect; One to one; One to many; Many to many.

Realtime vs non-realtime.

Working with partners, suppliers, and customers.

The digital/physical interface.

The digital workplace three Cs

Our three Cs align with our three ESN categories:

Coordination => Social intranet

Collaboration => Collaborative workspace

Community => Employee community

The 4 Types of Interaction in ESNs

Each ESN on the market has varying degrees of capability in each category. And how do ESNs cater for our four type of interaction?

  • Search and connect: ESNs can be an excellent engine for this type of interaction, as they make it easy to search for people either directly by name or role or indirectly through the work they share or expertise captured in their profiles. The ‘follow’ feature is at the heart of search and connect and embodies social networking.
  • One to one: ESNs typically enable one to one interaction through private content sharing and messaging, but the real focus is on enabling interaction between many.
  • One to many: ESNs are built on the concept of individuals sharing content openly with many others. The ‘many’ depends on where content is shared, it could be to a team of ten or to the whole organisation, but the effect is that many people see it and feedback through likes and comments.
  • Many to Many: ESNs also excel in many to many interactions by organising work into topics and enabling continuous conversation and development of ideas, processes, products, etc. that anyone present can contribute to.

Realtime vs non-realtime in ESNs

Moving onto realtime vs non-realtime, ESNs primarily enable non-realtime interaction, i.e. people post content that doesn’t require an instant response. Instead, the interactions unfold over time. Some ESNs provide some realtime capability through instant messaging and even video calling but are never part of the core offering.

Working with partners, suppliers, and customers in ESNs

What about working with partners, suppliers, and customers? ESNs are primarily focussed on social networking and collaborative work between internal employees, however, most offer some capability for working with people outside the organisation. This usually takes the form of places that have a mixture of internal and external members, taking advantage of ESN features that email can’t provide.

The digital/physical interface in ESNs

Finally, the digital/physical interface, which in our view can make or break the success of an ESN. The mobile app and browser interface needs to be world-class if you expect employees to use it with any enthusiasm. In today’s world, there’s nothing more off-putting than lousy user experience (UX).

So that’s how we see ESNs at Sei Mani. This detailed understanding allows us to recommend the right applications to our customers and drive incredibly high adoption. Get in touch for a free health check of your ESN or to discuss options in the market place.

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