Enterprise social networks are integrated technology suites that are modeled after aspects of popular consumer sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, but they deploy communication features on platforms that are secure, private and oriented to the internal business user or corporate employee. The communication approaches these technologies provide - promoting employee-to-employee connections, facilitating new idea discovery and prompting cross-company knowledge sharing - can provide significant value to organizations that need to work more efficiently.

Large and decentralized companies typically enjoy the greatest benefits of a corporate social network since they can break down communication barriers between physically distinct locations. However, smaller organizations frequently realize great value from these technologies if they are in a fast-moving industry that involves a lot of rapid change or if economic conditions have prompted a recent corporate restructuring or other dramatic change.

Enterprise social networks can typically benefit corporations by allowing them to do three primary things.

1. Connect Employees

In a business setting, a private social network can first and foremost help people find and connect with one another. For example, a salesperson in New York might utilize an internal social network to locate a product expert in Silicon Valley to help engage a new customer. In this context, the social network can serve as a living company directory of employees where each employee may create a searchable profile including their skills, background and project history.

Modern social networks typically provide expert search features that go beyond simple keyword searches, and many also include visual browsing tools. Some systems allow employees to browse for one another on a geographic map - so that, for example, an employee could search for other employees by region as well as expertise, interests and background.

2. Promote Information Discovery

Social networks have evolved well beyond expert search capabilities in recent years, and where many really shine today is in helping not just individuals but entire organizations to "sync up" with one another. This is typically done through a set of feed-based features that enable each employee to rapidly understand what is going on throughout the company. This approach provides an "organizational memory" in which information is rapidly disseminated to the edges of the network - that is, each employee becomes more knowledgeable about the company as a whole.

In this way, a social network becomes a discovery engine in which each employee can understand what is going on throughout his or her company without having to explicitly search for that information. The social network becomes a centralized information hub allowing employees to become more knowledgeable not only about the specific projects and departments in which they are most involved, but also provides an understanding of the context in which their work is used throughout the company.

This approach brings powerful opportunities to a large and decentralized business because it means that employees will frequently understand the context of another employee's question before he or she even asks it. For instance, by casually browsing the company's social feed on a daily basis, the Silicon Valley product expert in the example would become aware that the company was attempting to win a large new customer on the East Coast. The same person might be prompted to proactively reach out to salespeople there to offer the knowledge that will help them do their jobs better. The net effect is that ideas can be more efficiently shared throughout the company - at times when they are most needed.

3. Spark Knowledge Sharing

Many individuals involved in the data analysis and BI communities have encountered a simple truth: the best knowledge in the world doesn't provide value if employees don't find ways to consume and share that knowledge with others.

Many enterprise social networking tools include features that allow people to easily collaborate with one another - whether that be through online group discussions, private Web-based messaging or an integrated wiki. In order for this knowledge sharing to be most effective, two issues should be considered. First, the tools need to be simple and friendly to use so that employees find them personally helpful in doing their job well within the overarching goal of promoting cross-team and cross-department sharing. In other words, the social networking system makes proper knowledge sharing and dissemination so natural and effective that requiring an employee to actively take a sharing step is avoided. Second, these tools provide valuable transparency to the employee when other employees use them.

As economic conditions prompt mergers, acquisitions, downsizing and other corporate restructuring, many organizations find that a social network can help them find answers to knowledge-sharing questions at the exact time that they are needed most. Because of their focus on cross-team and cross-department collaboration, and because they are typically deployed in a Web-native format, enterprise social networks can help employees connect, discover ideas and share knowledge in a fast and effective manner.

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