I have seen it and I am a believer: Organizations can radically improve employee collaboration and culture by implementing a suitable enterprise social network (ESN), such as Microsoft Yammer, IBM Connections, SAP, Jive Software, or Slack.


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I am not the only optimist, but we—Community Managers, “enlightened” CIOs, Knowledge Managers and Communication Managers—are still outnumbered by the skeptics. And the skeptics have evidence to support their stance: Less than half of the enterprise collaboration tools installed have many employees using them regularly.


That is why Slack’s usage numbers are so exciting. They are proof that the adoption barrier can be overcome quickly and sustainably. Slack tackles the “I’m-too-busy-for-another tool” objection, integrating elegantly with other enterprise apps to deliver on their promise that employees will “Be Less Busy”. The other vendors are racing to duplicate Slack’s user adoption success in big enterprise settings.


I am concerned, however. This adoption victory can’t be the end of the ESN journey. We shouldn’t just measure participation rates and be satisfied. Now is the time to get excited (again) about the original ESN mission. I am talking about real impact on the organization—the achievement of strategic objectives, such as breaking down organization silos, and transforming the collaboration culture so that the business fundamentally improves!


You know strategic value when you see it. One indication that you are about to succeed with your ESN is when a senior manager creates an online collaboration group with the goal of making a change in the organization. Here are some recent examples I’ve come across:


  1. The country manager of a global services firm has a plan for increasing sales. She has dedicated teams at individual client locations, but the teams don’t talk to each other, and there is no collaboration on local business development. As the projects finish, the sales pipeline is dry. So the manager creates a country group on the ESN, and quickly the team members start connecting and collaborating on building the regional sales pipeline.

  2. The CEO of a technology company tasks a VP with a strategic initiative – to create a pipeline of new products and solutions. The problem is that the know-how is locked up in product teams that operate in isolated silos. The VP creates a cross-department “Theme Team” (following the Kaplan & Norton strategy execution methodology). He launches a group on the ESN to grow the team and bring it to life. Even step one – recruiting and exposing the people in this new cross-department group – is a victory. Then, the conversations start, leading to efficient idea creation, the release of “tacit knowledge” and innovation.


Not all conversations on an ESN have equal value, so quantitative measures of traffic on the ESN are insufficient. On the other hand, if there is no engagement across the ESN, there is no value. This is why Slack’s engagement numbers are so exciting… but it is only the beginning. 


How will we know if ESNs make it to the next step? First, when senior managers engage….openly. It just takes one honest question from a respected manager to light a fire in the company forums. The result is invariably a flood of insightful responses and value to the organization.


We should also keep an eye on the functionality from the big enterprise vendors – IBM, SAP, and Microsoft. Specifically, will the default setting for employee collaboration groups and spaces be open or private? If the default is private (like email), organizations will struggle to make the cultural jump to “working out load.” We want searchable, stored knowledge, as well as silo-crossing communities. The best enabler for that goal is an open-oriented ESN.


By Adam Zawel, community manager and CEO of Network Activator