backboneIn the previous article of this series I described some of the challenges that have so far prevented widespread deployment of employee social networks inside organizations. There is a school of thought that questions whether such networks will ever become widely established as destinations in their own right. Instead, social functionality will be added to existing enterprise applications – all applications will be social applications. This may be true but is, in my opinion, missing the point.

Over the last two years, there has been increasing recognition of the concepts of systems of record and systems of engagement described by Geoffrey Moore in his book Dealing With Darwin and subsequent white paper Systems of Engagement and The Future of Enterprise IT. He suggests that most enterprise IT effort over the last decade has concerned systems of record which may represent an authoritative source of an organization’s data, but do little to enable employee interaction to create and use this data. Therefore, these need to evolve into systems of engagement to enable enterprises to communicate and collaborate better and use this data to make more effective, more timely business decisions.

Chatter from is perhaps the most obvious example of this already starting to happen, and other vendors of systems of record will claim they are also adding social features. But can these claim to be true systems of engagement if they are tied to one application? Can a CRM system really provide collaboration capability for the whole company, not just users of the CRM?

We have been here before: When enterprise portal software came to prominence in the early 2000s, many ERP, CRM and even business intelligence vendors claimed they had added portal capabilities to their products. But the very nature of a portal is to provide access to a wide range of systems through a single interface. If a portal only provides access to a single vendor’s system, it probably isn’t really a portal.

And so it is with a social layer on a system of record. If all this does is connect existing users of that system, it’s not a true enterprise social network; it merely perpetuates the data- and process-centric nature of the current enterprise systems by creating “social silos”.

In an organization of 1,000 people, it may be that just 50 of these regularly use the CRM system. Yet CRM data may well be very useful to many of the other 950 people, and the knowledge of the 950 may be invaluable in helping the 50 CRM users resolve issues they are working on. It is clearly not practical for the 950 non-users to join a social layer tied to the CRM system. Would the finance department similarly demand that everyone joins their social network? And the HR department demand everyone joins their network? No, in order for the social layer to be effective, it needs to span all these systems, all these departments.

This is best illustrated by an example from the world of consumer-focused social networking. If someone posts a photo on Flickr, their friends can go to Flickr and post comments. Similarly, a video on YouTube, or a blog on WordPress. Users have to go to each site to view and discuss the content, and need to establish networks of friends on each. While each has social features, they are still fundamentally content-centric.

Contrast this with Facebook. Users can post links to their Flickr photos, YouTube videos and WordPress blogs, but the discussion all takes place on Facebook with the same network of friends. This is a people-centric model – it really doesn’t matter where the content is, as long as it can be discussed in the place where the people are.

I’ve been using this example for many years and it does, at first glance, suggest I am advocating the enterprise social network as a destination in its own right. When I started using the example, I probably was. But if we consider how Facebook has developed over the last few years, it is now embedded into many sites across the internet. You can use your Facebook id to login to sites or comment on content, demonstrating how Facebook is becoming a pervasive cross-site social layer.

Similarly, Edd Dumbill, writing about Google+ shortly after its launch, described:

“the rapidly growing seed of a web-wide social backbone, and the catalyst for the ultimate uniting of the social graph”

A “social backbone” is precisely what is required for an effective enterprise social network – a pervasive social layer that breaks down data silos and enables cross-department collaboration around corporate data and processes. At the risk of over-extending the anatomical metaphor, it’s the social backbone that ensures that one arm of the organization not only knows what the other is doing, but can actively support it.

So ultimately, whether a company-wide social network is a destination in its own right or embedded into other enterprise systems really isn’t the point. What matters is whether the social network connects people across the organisation. It should provide a social backbone, enabling employees from different departments and regions to work together irrespective of the systems of record they’re using.

This is part 9 of The Business Communication Revolution, a 15-part series on improving the efficiency of communication in business. You can continue read the series on this blog, or at

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