Why enterprise social networks don’t work

Knowledge Management has been around since the 90s and every so often it makes a prime-time re-appearance. Last week it was on Techcrunch, who featured UK-based Trampoline system’s Sonar Dashboard, a social network utility for large companies being touted as ‘Facebook for business’. Adding a coolness factor to the social enterprise networks by riding on the coat tails of a popular social site is a clever PR ploy but here’s why I am not buying into the hype.

Sonar_dashboard

I am a big fan of knowledge-capture/share systems but no matter what fancy name you come up with, these systems have the same fundamental issues. We all know that employees aren’t just sitting there waiting for a cool tool so they can share their information with thousands of co-workers. Sure they update their Facebook profile gazillion times a day, but that’s personal and it’s fun. In the professional context, what’s the incentive for keeping your profile updated? And do you want to be the slacker who’s constantly overloading the corporate site with boring details of his/her inconsequential project?

Trampoline Systems acknowledges this lack of inclination on part of the employees and says,

Automation is critical to enterprise social computing. Employees are less inclined to update profiles at work in comparison to consumer social networking. SONAR Dashboard is connected to SONAR Server, which analyses a company’s email and documents to discover the key themes and relationships hidden in electronic information.

TBH, this ‘automation’ reeks of corporate snooping. Over the last year, I interacted with at least 20 different teams in my organization and every day I find new individuals who impact my work. Unless you read my emails, you probably won’t know what I am doing or the projects that I am working on. So I am leery about how effectual this feature really is going to be. The text in the screenshots of the Sonar Dashboard or social maps (even those on Techcrunch) is not legible, so it’s impossible to tell what these relationships or the profiles really look like or what information is being extracted ‘automatically’. That just adds to the intrigue and ambiguity of their product and how it really works.

Some companies already have social ‘sharing’ features built into their intranet, where employees can add pictures, profile information, discuss questions, but you typically see the same handful of folks posting information most of the time. So the companies need to figure out how to encourage mainstream adoption, ie. how to get a critical mass of their employees to use and leverage the social network to make it meaningful.

Lastly, there’s a question of churn. I can see how the Sonar Dashboard could map my relationships to other divisions/groups and that’s valuable but those relationships are constantly evolving, people leave the companies or take up new roles, so the question is how regularly will these maps be kept updated?

I saw all the accolades that Trampoline has received, so naturally, I was curious as to who their customers are. There seem to be only a couple of firms who’ve signed up so far.

Trampoline’s clients include the Raytheon Company, a top 5 global management consultancy and the UK Foreign Office.

I can see this Sonar Dashboard and others like it, being very effective in a company with low churn and fairly stable processes and Raytheon seems to fit that description. In addition, law and consultancy firms also would highly benefit from this system, given the knowledge-intense nature of their business. However, companies in fast-paced environments, where things are a bit more fluid, would have a tremendous challenge in getting such a system implemented and getting any value from these types of systems.

I think it’s essential for larger companies to put some system into place encourage information-sharing and making it easier for employees to tap into their geographically-dispersed knowledge base. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there needs to be a cultural shift and incentives should be put into place to get employees to share information. As much as I think technology is great, but it can’t solve a company’s process and cultural problems. If the company culture is not inclined towards collaboration and sharing, no fancy-schmancy system is going to help the company. Any technology, including social-networking utility is a means to an end, not the end unto itself.

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