While the likes of Facebook and Twitter dominate today’s social media landscape, many organisations dismissed these platforms as little more than gimmicky distractions when they first arrived on the scene.

Attitudes have clearly changed since, with the vast majority of organisations now at least recognising — if not fully embracing — the power of these platforms. Others, meanwhile, have gone a step further by implementing their own enterprise social networks (ESNs).

Much like their non-enterprise counterparts, these ESNs allow people to collaborate in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes. But in this scenario, the collaboration centers specifically around work, whether that be a business process like strategic decision making or planning; an application like customer relationship management (CRM); or general problems or questions that incite discussions.

ESNs can be used internally and securely within an organisation to improve productivity, onboarding, knowledge management, and transparency of the workforce. Alternatively, the collaboration process can be extended beyond the organisation; for example, through CRM applications to rapidly share customer insights with business partners.

In the early days of ESNs, the market hype described how companies would run on social networks where all communications are open, all processes are transparent, and all executives are fully accessible. The mantra was very much along the lines of “Facebook for the enterprise”.

It’s fair to say this utopian vision didn’t really get far off the ground. There are many reasons why it didn’t grow the wings needed to fly, but chief among them was the fact that it was never really what the organisations themselves wanted. It oversimplified matters and was fundamentally flawed.

Genuine value

What organisations want is to help improve their employees’ on-the-job performance. What are their users trying to achieve? And what can be done to ensure they do it better? By focusing on these questions, organisations can leverage ESNs to deliver genuine value, rather than using them just to prove how modern, social, and connected they are.

At their very simplest, the accessible and transparent nature of ESNs means they can improve efficiency by reducing the amount of time people spend asking for information via email. This can only be good for productivity and employee satisfaction, while there may also be positive downstream effects like improved customer relationships.

Helping users to improve how they work introduces a fundamental decision for the organisation: Should they put the ESN where users already are, integrated closely with an application like email or CRM, or should they implement the ESN as a separate system and ask users to move onto it?

The former approach is without doubt the easier of the two to achieve, but the latter is likely to enable much greater flexibility down the line. Ultimately, this is a decision to be taken with the individual demands and goals of the organisation in mind.

It is also important to realise that implementing an ESN is best approached as a trial-and-error exercise. Indeed, it can take quite some time to learn how an ESN can best work for the organisation as there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for making it a success.

Organisations need to learn by doing, which means that agile implementation methodologies and piloting schemes are essential. There is little point in engaging in a long, drawn-out process to establish precise requirements; ESNs change how people work, and the best way to see and support how this change takes place is by letting it happen.

Possible scenario

As such, organisations would be well advised to get the ESN up and running first and then monitor end-user requests as they arise, rather than spending a long time in advance trying to predict every possible scenario that may or may not arise.

Looking ahead, ESNs will shape the next generation of organisational collaboration, with the one-to-one or one-to-many email model used today increasingly being phased out in favour of enabling employees, partners, and customers to interact via open, searchable platforms.

This will not be a straightforward process. Indeed, most organisational communication is currently based around email, which means organisations have major transformation journeys ahead if they are going to successfully embrace this new generation of unfettered communication and collaboration.

Securing the resources required to drive such wide-scale transformation may prove problematic in the current economic climate, but options such as free trials, viral adoption, and smaller team-based ESNs can at least enable the all-important learning journey to get underway.

The columnist is group vice-president and regional managing director for the Middle East, Africa and Turkey at global ICT market intelligence and advisory firm International Data Corporation (IDC). He can be contacted via Twitter @JyotiIDC. Content for this week’s feature leverages global, regional, and local research studies undertaken by IDC.