Did ya year the one about the goofball who posted the zany shipping box pictures on his office’s enterprise social network? Neither did anyone else.

The goofball – a friend of mine, actually (the kind of guy that might blush if you called him a goofball) – works for a midsized international marketing provider. They’re pretty sharp on the uptake of analytic tools for finance and visualization tools by their creative and sales teams. They’ve also implemented an enterprise social networking and collaboration platform. From a collaboration perspective, it works pretty well, enabling their people in different divisions to pass around documents and spitball on programs without taking the train to Chicago (or a flight to their East Coast or U.K. offices).

They were also on the frontlines of adoption of an enterprise social network, meant to stoke marketing creativity and collaboration. A big rollout and ... nothing. And now, some of those same posts from a year or two ago are the only activity on the internal site. After a half-hearted request to get employees on it, my goofball friend, who’s also a stickler for rules, started posting odd and overly dramatic pictures of boxes he’d created, with specific questions and references to his fellow employees and ESN users. Again, no response from any of the few hundred people at the company. Tumbleweeds. Crickets chirping.

[By all industry adoption accounts, the ESN is one of the most popular. But I’m not going to name them here, at the risk of slamming one vendor when I’ve heard similar results with other platforms.]

Sure, maybe my friend has a pretty low bar in terms of sense of humor (for one, I’m grateful it was only weird pictures of shipping materials). But it also speaks to something I can’t shake about this sphere of social networks: What’s really social about them? Sandboxing is one thing, especially with IT teams working on projects, but when it comes to the business-wide functions of collaboration, is it important to have an avatar and play “friends” with your manager?

Even with all the bells and whistles, the community aspects of ESNs today just remind me of the message boards of old. Or, like poor mock-ups of actual public social networks thriving outside the enterprise walls, especially with the actual creativity of Tumblr, the easy availability of Gmail’s Gchat, or the true business concerns and tips from LinkedIn. Compared with the security or liability concerns on one side with public social networks and level of adoption and cost (read: free), I think few enterprise social networks could justify the ROI.

So, I’ll concede that the enterprise social networks of today may only be a few collaborative tools behind, as Saugatuck’s Alex Bakker suggested, or even a bunch more terse demands for participation by anxious CIOs.

Don’t get me wrong, BI could always use more inroads to users. But for my imaginary CIO budget, I’d be much more prone to spend in the near term on something with more direct returns on business involvement and data, like heightened visualization, or even gamification, which has a more pointed purpose and can be more easily corralled by a specific department, like HR.

I’d be interested to hear some of the ways your team is actually using an enterprise social network. And what obstacles have you come across in trying to get folks to buy in to using it? That includes any dumb box pictures.

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