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Getting the most out of enterprise social networks

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In January 2013, technology research firm Gartner made some bold predictions about enterprise social networks (ESNs). First, the firm said that ESNs would eventually become the primary communication channels for noticing, deciding or acting on information relevant to carrying out work. But Gartner also estimated that through 2015, 80 percent of social business efforts would not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership and an overemphasis on technology.

So how have the uses and perceptions of ESNs changed since then? Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media and telecommunications research for Deloitte Canada, says there isn’t as much buzz about ESNs as there was a few years ago, but it’s “still an important topic.” People might be talking less about social networking, because it’s not as novel as it used to be. “People don’t talk about light switches that much anymore either. They are just the way lights go on and off,” Stewart says. “It doesn’t mean they aren’t important. It just means they aren’t new.”

The prediction about social business efforts not achieving intended benefits seems to have come true, from anecdotal evidence anyway. “I know a lot of companies that tried it and it failed,” Stewart says. “They have a zombie ESN … It looks sort of alive, but is not doing very well. A core group of people are still using it, but by and large it is not a factor. People in the company can get very negative about the concept. They do it in a half-hearted manner and then turn against it.”

Stewart suggests that companies readjust their expectations about usage and return on investment measurement. “Our research suggests a well-implemented ESN would see 30 to 40 percent of employees using it on a monthly basis and 10 to 20 percent weekly,” he says. But he would argue that it’s a good deal if you can get a quarter of your employees exchanging information from a service that has a low entry cost.

“It’s really hard for KM leaders to demonstrate what the return is,” Stewart adds. “You can say, ‘We are communicating more than we used to, and we are spending very little. We can’t quantify the R, but given how little the I is, we are positive the ROI has to be good.’ That is how they have gotten their hands around it.”

The buzz at Humana

KMWorld asked two KM leaders who led projects to develop active social networks about their experiences and lessons learned.

Jeff Ross, community manager at Humana health insurance company, says its enterprise social network, called Buzz, has evolved in significant ways since its launch in 2010. The percentage of employees with Buzz accounts has gradually increased to 80 percent. The effort to boost adoption has been complicated by the rapid growth of the company, both organically and through acquisitions. When Buzz started, Humana had 20,000 employees and now has more than 50,000. But that growth also has made having an ESN more critical in terms of locating expertise in a far-flung company, according to Ross.

“Initially there were greater levels of skepticism from some in leadership and elsewhere about whether this had business value,” Ross says, yet new types of uses keep developing. Each year Humana has seen increases in the number of places where Buzz conversations are integrated with business processes. “We have over 300 different places, primarily SharePoint sites, but other internal tools and the intranet landing page integrate Buzz really well,” he says. That has been an ongoing emphasis: have Buzz where people are doing their work so it is not seen as a separate tool they have to go to. Certain pockets of the company are using it as a replacement for the tools they used to use. For instance, some IT areas use groups on Buzz instead of group e-mails.

Ross says Buzz is often used to find expertise within the company. People use a group called “Who Does What at Humana?” Employees can make a generic request if they don’t know where to go with an issue, and administrators and others are good at tagging the right people to connect them, he explains.

Buzz also helps with onboarding of new employees. A group of trainers and human resources teams work with people who have been offered positions but have not yet started with the company. “Those leaders are using Buzz to connect with people before their first day on the job,” Ross says.

Executive support

Another aspect that has evolved is senior leader engagement. Initially, senior executives were aware and philosophically supporting Buzz, but they weren’t using it, Ross explains. “When current CEO Bruce Broussard came on board in January 2014, he had a very different mindset and jumped in fairly early in using it,” he says.

In monthly leadership meetings, Broussard uses Buzz for capturing content and doing the Q&A. In the executive boardroom, one screen has video streams from other locations, and the other screen is a Buzz conversation underway. People can put questions there and hold conversations about what is going on in the meeting. “So it has gotten a lot of executive visibility over the last few years,” he adds, “which has trickled down to other leaders who may have been skeptical before.”

In fact, Ross describes a meeting in which someone asked a direct question about the ROI around Buzz. Ross recalls Broussard saying, “I don’t know exactly what it is going to cost to do this, but I do know that having 50,000 people on the same page moving in the same direction is pretty important.”

Broussard has been supportive from the start. Ross says, “I have never been asked to produce an ROI, and I don’t expect to be asked. What I do want to produce is good documentation from the last year’s worth of Buzz to show exactly how it has contributed to the five corporate values that we talk about a lot.” Ross is gathering stories about instances of employees rethinking routine, simplifying processes and working together where Buzz made a significant impact in how that happened. “Those are stories I want to be able to tell,” he adds.

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