The Importance of Enterprise Social Networks to Management

For any with a business degree who think that so-called enterprise social networking — social networks that run internally in corporations — is just another fad, consider two facts. First, Microsoft recently acquired Yammer, one of the leading social networking tools for internal use in enterprises. Second, Yammer has partnered with another vendor, Kanjoya, to let organizations measure emotional sentiment of employees by analyzing their posts.

Enterprise social networking is not some new “toy” for IT. Nor is it technology that provides no value from a business management viewpoint. Instead, enterprise social networking employs a combination of functions to support something critical in the modern corporation: collaboration and communications. Employee collaboration has become vital to corporations as a way to promote innovation and drive industry leadership. According to a 2012 study based on IBM face-to-face conversations with more than 1,700 chief executives in 64 countries, 75 percent of CEOs call collaboration a “critical” trait for employees.

In a traditional top-down organizational structure of a corporation, communication lines tend to be established in a vertical arrangement. Upper management sets strategy and communicates it down through several layers of management. At each layer, managers translate the strategic goals into more actionable and specific versions for their groups. Employees could communicate, but outside of the lunchroom or away from the water cooler, it was typically only directed to supervisors, who were expected to synthesize what they heard and take action at their level or, if necessary, transmit something up the chain of command.

However, such rigid channels of communications prevent the easy flow of communications throughout a company. Different groups working on complementary projects may never know of each others’ existence. As importantly, the heard of innovation is the combination of ideas that might not seem to have anything in common, but, when combined, might provide a new and powerful product, solution, or service.

Employees don’t get exposed to aspects of the company and its work that might provide just the stimulus they need. That’s why enterprise social networks are gaining increasing importance. Suddenly, there is a way to let employees discover each other, ideas, and parts of the company that they would not have seen in traditional ways.

According to a separate IBM research study, enterprise social networks help employees “build stronger bonds with their weak ties and to reach out to employees they do not know.” The effect is like that of a regular social network, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google+. Participants can search for topics that might be of interest, come into contact with new people, and be exposed to ideas that might otherwise never come to light. Enterprise social networks also provide a scale and ease of communication that might not otherwise be possible.

Back to Yammer and Kanjoya for a moment. Sentiment analysis can give an HR department a more objective and nuanced view of employee reactions to new policies. Strategic planners can uncover potential critical problems to a new initiative that haven’t filtered up the traditional communications channels. As companies continue more fully into a global business world, managers need to understand how enterprise social networks can help support corporate interests in ways that were never before possible.

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