Q&A about Enterprise Social Networks with IBM

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IBM sent some questions following the recent IBM Connect conference. They are based on some unwritten assumptions that I disagree with, which will become evident in my response.

Here’s the questions:

  1. What is your definition of a successful social enterprise?
  2. Why do companies consider forming an enterprise-wide social network and what are the biggest benefits?
  3. How are enterprise social networks used to share knowledge and increase innovation?
  4. What hurdles do organizations face when implementing an enterprise social network? How can you overcome these hurdles?
  5. How do you see enterprise social networks evolving over the next 5 years?

Some answers:

Q1: What is your definition of a successful social enterprise?

A1. The idea of a ‘successful social enterprise’ is simple if you approach it superficially. In that case you simply define ‘success’ as some degree of adoption of social tools, and the harvesting of their purported benefits based on the network effects of social integration. A richer, and more nuanced definition requires a deep dive into significant changes in people’s aspirations, corporate values, and dispersal of tech platforms that underwrite new ways of work, not just new ways to communicate. (But this is not the place for that book to be written.)


A sense that the promise of social collaboration has failed is the backdrop for many companies and teams moving to try work chat-based solutions, and the resurgence in the use of email. — Stowe Boyd


Q2: Why do companies consider forming an enterprise-wide social network and what are the biggest benefits?

A2. There is actually a large-scale migration away from the now-mainstream model of ‘social business = a company using enterprise social network as platform for communication, collaboration, and coordination’. A sense that the promise of social collaboration has failed is the backdrop for many companies and teams moving to try work chat-based solutions, and the resurgence in the use of email, now somewhat socialized (like IBM Verse and Microsoft Office 365).

Q3: How are enterprise social networks used to share knowledge and increase innovation?

A3. Information sharing (mistakenly called ‘knowledge sharing’) is one of the most direct benefits of social platforms, of whatever kind. They decrease the costs involved, and the social motifs — like following, @mentions, and topical activity streams — have revolutionized how we think about working together. I think increasing innovation is a separate, but immensely important issue. Tools need to stand out of the way, drop into the near background, so that innovation can happen: they don’t engender creativity, per se.


In a few years the inroads made by touch, voice, gesture, and surreality will have profound impacts on how people at work choose to communicate. — Stowe Boyd


Q4: What hurdles do organizations face when implementing an enterprise social network? How can you overcome these hurdles?

A4. The hurdles of adopting any innovation — like a new communications or information platform for business — are consistently the same. First, people differ to the degree they are psychologically disposed toward adoption of new technologies and techniques (and the values that come along with them). So-called innovators — Ed Rogers’ term — are quick to adopt, and the laggards are most averse, and the rest of us are distributed in between in other groups: early adopters, early majority, and late majority. That’s the nature of people. Each group has its own set of concerns and considerations that slow adoption to a greater or lesser extent. This is independent of the specifics of any technology or the dynamics of any company, and dominates The Diffusion of Innovations, which is why Everett Rogers named his magisterial book that.

In the case of ESNs, adoption has been problematic because the benefits are difficult to quantify, are slow to be realized (if at all), and the established alternatives (like email) are deeply embedded in business practices and processes. This has been so slow a process that innovators and early adopters are jumping the curve and moving onto new approaches before the majority has adopted the old ones. So ESNs are already a lap behind in the communications platform foot race.

Q5. How do you see enterprise social networks evolving over the next 5 years?

A5. The continued acceleration toward mobile, wearables, and augmented and virtual reality (or surreality, as I call it) will mean even more of a migration away from desktop/laptop use and the decline of ‘desktop’ motifs. In a few years the inroads made by touch, voice, gesture, and surreality will have profound impacts on how people at work choose to communicate. Added to the rapid rise of AI assistants (or assistance, depending on your view), the premises of ‘working together’ will change as much as the Web has done, already. So, while we will still be working in social networks in five years — we are human beings after all — we will be unlikely to be using platforms based on the design and organizing principles of what we call ESNs, today.


 Cross-posted from medium and stoweboyd.com on 8 February 2016.

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