iStock_000018687953XSmallThe success of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter has inevitably caused many companies to consider how similar techniques and technologies can be applied to internal business communication.  Social networks promise a solution to many of email’s failings, particularly in the areas of group discussions and capturing collective knowledge. It’s fairly obvious that a conversation between 5 people is going to be more efficient as a discussion in a social network than as a long series of emails copied to all participants. The result will be a single, definitive view of the discussion available to all participants and easily discoverable by other network members who are entitled to see it.

The benefits of social networks inside an organisation were documented extensively in a July 2012 report from McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) entitled The social economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies. MGI found that social technology can improve the productivity of knowledge workers by 20-25% by reducing the time spent reading and answering e-mail, searching and gathering information, and communicating internally.

Yet many organisations are yet to deploy any serious social project within the company, leaving the promise of enterprise social networking largely unfulfilled. There are many reasons for this, and if we are to succeed in improving business communication, we need to understand these reasons.

Firstly, enterprise social networks have had something of lack of clarity of identity, with the term “social business” being used to refer to both external use of social (such as engaging with customers on Facebook) and internal use for employee collaboration. This confusion has led to some quite frankly implausible conclusions, such as a recent survey that claims 74% of companies use Facebook for enterprise collaboration. I’m sure 74% of companies (more, in fact) use Facebook for business purposes, but I am equally sure that very, very few of them use it for what could be described as “enterprise collaboration”.

This lack of clarity about how social technology is being applied leads to confusion and often to hostility to the idea from management. Lazy, inaccurate terms like “it’s like Facebook for business” or “Twitter for business”,  only perpetuate this problem, conjuring up visions of employees sharing photos of their children and pets and trading trivialities. The common “virtual water cooler” metaphor is equally unhelpful, because it suggests that social networking is for the gaps between real work, rather than for real work itself.

It is increasingly clear that for social networking initiatives inside an organisation to succeed, they need to support real work. They need to help employees become more productive at the tasks they were already performing, rather than becoming yet another communication channel to keep up with.

Applying social networking to real business processes is something that needs to be planned and deployed with management approval. This dispels another social business myth, that employee social networks can be created from the ground-up by a group of enthusiastic employees without management involvement. This approach has led to successful deployment sometimes, but more often than not such initiatives fizzle out after the initial enthusiasm wears off and fail to establish their relevance to business objectives. Charlene Li of Altimeter Group in her February 2012 report Making The Business Case For Enterprise Social Networks finds that “the reality of everyday work pushed ESN use to the side, causing people to pull away from their ESN activities and return back to their original work and communication patterns”.

It is also clear that enterprise social networks are most successful in certain types of organisations. Distributed workforces benefit more from ESNs than small companies where everyone is in the same office, as they have less opportunity for face-to-face communication. Companies who are striving to be more open and to empower employees to make independent decisions are far more likely to create a successful, thriving network than those who are actively trying to reduce the flow of information between employees. I often liken ESNs to exercise bikes – just buying the exercise bike isn’t going to make you fit, but if you use it correctly, it may prove to be the catalyst to make you fitter.

This “not as easy as just throwing software at the problem” revelation really shouldn’t be a surprise, but it has provoked something of a backlash in the first half of 2013. This is a perfectly normal part of the evolutionary cycle of new technologies in business, something that Gartner illustrate very concisely in their hype cycle model. Use of social networking inside business has clearly gone past the “peak of inflated expectations” and into the “trough of disillusionment”.

But just as we shouldn’t believe the hype, neither should we despair and give up on social business. As companies look towards coherent strategies for using social networks alongside other communication tools to give the right blend of push and pull information flows, enterprise social networks will emerge from “the trough” and progress up Gartner’s “slope of enlightenment”.

This is part 8 of The Business Communication Revolution, a 15-part series on improving the efficiency of communication in business. You can continue reading the series on this blog, or at