February 28, 2012 – Enterprise social networks have been slow to deliver on promises of collaboration as early adopters also struggle to measure returns, according to a new report from consultancy Altimeter Group.

The report, “Making The Business Case For Enterprise Social Networks” by Altimeter researcher Charlene Li, involved responses from 13 tech providers, 185 end users and 81 social network decision-makers, all from enterprises with more than 250 employees. A follow-up report is planned on maturity models and the future of enterprise social networks (ESN).

Few of the selling points of ESN proved to make a great impact to those in the report. Only 34 percent found that the internal networks made a “significant” impact on department and team collaboration, and fewer found substantial improvements on finding and sharing expertise (31 percent), sharing best practices (21 percent), and support of strategic transformation (19 percent). At the other end of the spectrum, 57 percent of respondents reported “very little impact” from networks on employee retention, and registered that same level of impact in the reduction of meeting volumes (50 percent) and faster decision-making (43 percent).

Measures of the success of these networks were scattered across collaborative, financial and strategic metrics. Speed of collaboration and frequency of use led ROI metrics, followed by the percentage of employees engaged in its use across the enterprise, and then the level with which network users were engaged. At the lower end of responses, just 26 percent noted they found success in improvement of specific business processes, and only 7 percent tied networks to financial results. Even the enterprises admitted that they currently measure ESN results “very poorly” (33 percent) or “somewhat poorly” (35 percent). No respondents claimed to measure their internal network results “very well.”

In part, the Altimeter report finds that a slim majority of enterprises are in the experimental or formalized phases of adoption where strategies are being formalized and there may only be short-term direction. Still, there were a significant of respondents reporting mature (21 percent) or advanced (18 percent) levels of network adoption, in which strategy and use are spread across most if not all of the enterprise.

Along with the early stage of many ESN adoptions, Li stated that too much focus has been placed on the social networks as a tech deployment. In a blog on the results, Li wrote that enterprises need to have a network plan in place that encourages sharing, documents and captures internal knowledge, enables more employees to chime in, and embraces day-to-day process changes.

“A different way to think about this is that ESNs represent a new way to communicate and form relationships – and because of that, can bridge gaps that exist in terms of information sharing and decision-making processes. To better understand these use cases, we found that they boil down to four different types of gaps in the organization — tough problems that can’t be addressed by the current technology, process, or culture,” Li wrote.

By provider, the choice of networks was spread somewhat evenly, with Yammer in use by the most respondents (19 percent), followed by Chatter, Telligent and IBM Connections (all with 12 percent, respectively), Jive (10 percent), SharePoint (8 percent), and NewsGator (6 percent). The remaining 21 percent were split between other options.

For a copy of the report, click here.