What is an Enterprise Social Network?

If you decided to replace your intranet with an enterprise social network (ESN), what exactly would that look like?

The enterprise social software space is still relatively young and evolving, so attempting to categorise enterprise social networking software into a strict definition does not necessarily allow us to identify a clear set of tools. At a minimum we can probably agree that the characteristics of enterprise social networks are software that:

  • Supports the concept of a rich user profile.
  • Allows users to communicate with each other in a way that is open and public by default.
  • Is based primarily on relationships defined by organisational membership not ‘friendship’ (like Facebook).

But this dot point list still only provides a loose framework for identifying ESNs. Products with a mixture of overlapping and vastly different features can easily make the shortlist. For example:

  • Yammer meets this definition, but also allows customers and people with no formal relationship to network through its support for external communities.
  • Cisco’s Webex Social (previously known as Cisco Quad) integrates with unified communication options, including instant messaging, video, voice and Web conferencing.
  • Atlassian Confluence, primarily known as an enterprise wiki, provides an activity stream, supports status updates from users and also includes a user profile.
  • Microsoft SharePoint can be configured in a variety of ways to meet baseline enterprise social network requirements but is typically augmented with 3rd party enhancement or customisations.

But if you look closer you will find that Yammer, Webex Social, Confluence, and SharePoint are all very different products to compare. Even the licensing and deployment options are considerably different. And most products offer integrations with SharePoint, meaning that SharePoint is often deployed in parallel with other ESN solutions!

Another perspective is to think about the capabilities and benefits that enterprise social software provides – I’ve previously described them as being related to the way they support rich user profiles, enable observable work and aggregate social data for action or analysis. While this model was never intended to provide a functional specification for an enterprise social network, it does highlight two things:

  1. Enterprise social software is different from existing platforms (email, groupware and traditional intranets); and
  2. Enterprise social networks are more than just a user profile (in fact I would argue, if all you have is a profile then it is simply a fancy corporate directory).

So what does an enterprise social network look like?

At Headshift Asia Pacific we follow a user-centred design methodology, so my natural tendency is to shy away from feature lists. But in the interests of trying to describe what the software attributes of an enterprise social network could include, I’ve created this map:

(You can download a copy of this map from SlideShare)

I suggest you use this in an exploratory way. The colour coding is a guide, but I won’t attempt to apply strict definitions – interpret them as you see fit. Your enterprise social network doesn’t need to have all these features, but you might decide that you require them as you think about their application. One way to approach this is to think about:

  • Where is the focus of enterprise social network – just staff or maybe business partners and customers as well?
  • How much integration into the back-end of your organisation does your enterprise social network need to support?

Hopefully this exploratory approach will help you decide what an enterprise social network will look like in your organisation, rather than simply ticking off features in a particular solution.

Do you need help with transforming your intranet or selecting an enterprise social network? Headshift Asia Pacific offer a range of consulting services to assist you:

  • Mentoring and strategic advice.
  • Workshops.
  • Business case, use case and vision development.
  • Technology selection.
  • Implementation support – including technology, social learning, community management and organisational change.
  • Program evaluation.

Contact James Dellow on 0414 233711 or via email.