Enterprise social networks Part 1 – Establishing good practice

by | Feb 25, 2018 | Collaboration, Digital workplace

Earlier this month I wrote about the value of academic research. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of enterprise social networks (ESNs). The genesis of the concept of an ESN dates from an article in Sloan Management Review in 2006 by Andrew McAfee on the features of Enterprise 2.0. He described these features as SLATES; Search, Links, Authoring, Tags, Extensions and Signals. The technology to deliver these is not difficult, and over the next decade ESNs were adopted quite rapidly as a wide range of vendors took advantage of the market opportunity proposed by McAfee. Then in 2015 Charlene Li authored a paper in Harvard Business Review entitled Why No-one Uses the Corporate Social Network, setting out the results of a survey that indicated that levels of adoption were much lower than was either expected or required to justify the investment. This should not have been a surprise to anyone tracking the research literature, which from around 2010 was indicating that a technology-push approach was not going to be effective.

From 2014 onwards the scope and scale of the research into ESN adoption has increased quite dramatically. A literature review published in 2017 listed 106 research papers. In my own collection of 50 research papers half of them have been published in 2017/2018. This particular review is not open access but a similar paper given at a conference in 2017 is a very good starting place. Most of these are case studies; there is little point in undertaking research on a pilot ESN with 20 users. Looking through them as I am writing this post I am struck by how many have come from research teams in Europe (especially Germany) and how few from the USA. Especially useful are a number of papers which undertake a meta-analysis of the published research to draw out emerging trends and outcomes. Information retrieval research can be carried out with small test collections, or public web sites. An ESN research project requires quite a substantial effort to understand what is going on. It is in the nature of research within organisations that the identity of the organisation is rarely disclosed. IBM and Siemens are notable exceptions.

What I find interesting is the range of journals where the research is presented, among them Computer Networks, Computers and Human Behaviour, Journal of Information Technology, Information Retrieval, International Journal of Information Management, New Technology Work and Employment, and MIS Quarterly. Add in several different conferences and a couple of PhD theses and the width and depth of the research is remarkable. It is an outcome of the rapid realization that ESN adoption and use is a function of many variables. It is not a universal platform like email or perhaps even an intranet. Within the organisation there will be what might be described as micro-climates; employees using the application at a personal, team, group, department and corporate level but in very different ways. A good illustration is a paper from Christian Oettl, Thomas Berger, Markus Böhm, Manuel Wiesche and Helmut Krcmar  at the Technical University of Munich that discusses archetypes (the academic equivalent of a persona) for enterprise social network users. Many of the other recent papers have taken a similar approach as a way of (in effect) segmenting the enterprise market for ESN solutions.

For anyone in the ESN business, either managing in an organisation or developing in software or services vendor, this very significant collection of research would be invaluable. You may be wondering why, if the research papers are so useful, are there so few links in the post. The reason is that most of the research is published in subscription journals and is therefore ‘invisible’ to practitioners. If this is an area of research that is of interest to you I’d be delighted to send you a list of the papers I have in my collection, However I am not able to provide copies because of copyright restrictions. You will find my email address on my website.

Martin White

Part 2 Measuring success   Part 3 Searching and monitoring