enterprise social networks creating more silosOne of the leading value propositions of an Enterprise Social Network “ESN” is that it enables organizations to break down silos. The idea behind the implementation of an ESN is a good one. You set up an internal network where everyone in the company can see what everyone else is working on and that leads to enhanced collaboration, innovation and the sharing of knowledge and ideas.

In theory this is true. Unfortunately, theory is not always reality and in most cases organizational culture prevents the ideals behind an ESN to actually flourish. We know this from first hand experience, having participated in the strategy development and implementation of an ESN for our clients on several occasions.

One of the standard functionalities of most ESN’s is the ability to create groups or communities. There are usually three different types of groups or communities that can be created: public groups, private groups and private groups with external parties.

Public groups are just that public. Anyone in the organization, and only the organization, can view discussions, files and other activity within the group.

Private groups are private. Meaning that only those people within an organization that have been invited to become a member of the group can see what is happening inside the group. Conversations, files and all other information remains private and only accessible by group members.

Private groups with external parties. In these types of groups, external parties such as partners, consultants, vendors or even customers, can be invited to participate in the group. External parties only see whatever is being discussed or shared within the group and nothing else. They have no access to the rest of the internal network.

If the goal of an ESN is to break down silos and get people to collaborate and work together more effectively, then logically it makes sense that most of the groups created in an ESN should be public groups. Unfortunately, corporate culture gets in the way of logic and usually what ends up happening is that most of the groups that are created are private groups. So instead of breaking down organizational silos, we end up creating new ones.

This was the case with one of our clients. Out of 230 groups that were created on the ESN, 75% of them were private. Clearly this is a major issue that needs to be resolved otherwise the primary business goal for launching the ESN will not be accomplished.

So what can you do? Changing the culture of an organization is an incredibly difficult task that takes time and patience. Introducing new technology and hoping that the technology will change the culture is clearly not the answer. Changing the culture, usually referred to as change management, requires several things. First and foremost, every employee needs to be able to answer the question: “What is in it for me?” The answer to this question will vary from person to person, but at the end of the day, every employee must be able to answer this question in order to be able to accept working in a different manner than what they are used to. Telling employees they must use this new technology because management says so is a recipe for disaster. It may work for a short period of time, but ultimately, employees will not adopt the new technology and ways of working unless you can show them that by doing so they will be rewarded in some way.

The rewards can vary and can include things like: makes my work easier, allows me to work more efficiently, allows me to have better visibility within the organization, allows me to be compensated for sharing my knowledge, enables me to get promoted, makes my work more rewarding, makes my work more fun, etc….

In addition to having employees answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” senior leaders must develop processes that reward employees for collaborating and sharing their knowledge. This doesn’t necessarily mean raising their salaries or paying them a bonus, although it can. It can also mean increased recognition, a promotion, a “pat in the back” or even a small employee perk or reward. Furthermore, senior leadership must lead by example. It is not enough for leaders to merely state that they support a new way of working, they actually have to change the way they work and show examples of how they expect other employees to work and use an ESN.

Another approach to prevent the creation of silos is to create cross functional public groups by design. In other words, instead of creating groups by function: (i.e. marketing, HR, legal, sales, product development), one should create groups focused on cross-disciplinary projects that require the input and participation of people across the organization. This approach will enable employees to understand the value of open collaboration and will encourage them to use the ESN for similar projects in the future.

I have seen some organizations attempt to solve the issue by restricting the ability of ESN users to create their own groups. They require new groups to go through a vetting process that results in centralizing the ability to create new groups. In my opinion this is the wrong approach because it goes against the ideal of a social network. A social network should be free to flourish in ways that may not be anticipated, which will in turn result in new ideas and innovation. To restrict the ability to create new groups and add a level of bureaucracy that in my opinion is the wrong approach.

Instead, what I recommend is the creation of a Social Council made up of individuals from different functions within the organization that is continually looking at the ESN and the groups that are created and makes sure that there are no redundant or inactive groups. This is what I call the “kill the weeds and flower the seeds” approach. The Social Council should identify best practices and encourage others to emulate, join or create groups that are thriving and working well within the organization. In certain instances, the Council may recommend that two groups merge if  they are redundant or if the merger would result in a more valuable group. The Council should also have the power and ability to close or delete groups that have largely been inactive and where the group owner is not actively participating and trying to raise engagement amongst group members.

Finally, I think education plays a large role in ensuring that silos are not created in the new ESN. Most organizations do a decent job at training their employees on how to use the ESN. However, they all fall short in explaining the “WHY?” as in “WHY should I use this tool?” Again, “what’s in it for me?” The training should address the WHY? and should also include a discussion about why some group use cases are good for public groups while others are better for private groups. Prior to a private group being created, the owner of a group should be able to clearly identify the reasons why the group should be private. If the owner cannot do that, then that group should remain a public group.

Enterprise Social Networks are very valuable tools that can enhance the collaboration and communication amongst employees. However, it is important to have a strategy and process in place in order to prevent an ESN from becoming just another platform for organizational silos.

What has your experience been when dealing with organizational silos? Does your ESN contain more private groups than public groups? What methods are you using to address this? Please share your thoughts

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