Getting the most out of enterprise social networks

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The “infinite hallway” at the JAG Corps

Another successful ESN grew up in an unlikely place: the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps.

Scott Reid, director of knowledge management innovation at the Washington, D.C.,-based law firm Littler Mendelson, led the development of the enterprise social network in the JAG Corps when he served as its chief knowledge officer from 2011 to 2014. The JAG Corps has about 5,000 active duty attorneys, paralegals and office staff, as well as a large number of Army Reserve members.

Reid explains why the JAG Corps decided to make an enterprise social network the centerpiece of its knowledge management effort. “The Army JAG Corps is a place you can go to get experience,” he says. “So we had a lot of new attorneys doing law work for the first time. The same goes for paralegals.” The JAG Corps also has civilian attorneys who support military organizations. They have more longevity and become subject matter experts. The new legal staff members tend to want to walk down the hall and ask people with seniority their opinions.

“We came up with this idea called the infinite hallway,” Reid says. “What if I weren’t limited to the people to my left and right? The idea was to build something, get more people contributing, keep the information and make it searchable to make it valuable to someone else later.”

Rather than building something in-house, Reid’s KM team chose to use an ESN developed at an office at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. Called milBook, it is a customized version of the Jive social network system. Reid’s team did a pilot project with the legal assistants group. “In my view, it was an instant success,” he says. “We had 250 people using it immediately and that number soon grew to 500.” Right away users started asking and answering questions, sharing work products where appropriate in the right way and not sharing confidential information of their command. “In the course of that pilot, we learned its strengths and limitations and realized we had to develop a governance policy,” Reid says.

Attorneys in remote locations such as Alaska and Japan had been disconnected from the JAG Corps by virtue of the time zone they worked in. “But when we added milBook, somebody would ask a question, and overnight a veteran counsel in Japan would provide terrific advice to young attorneys,” he says. “We just weren’t getting that otherwise.”

Understanding why some ESNs fail

Humana’s Ross helped establish a weekly Twitter chat about enterprise social networks called ESNchat. In many of the conversations there, he would hear descriptions of ESNs established by IT as just another tool but without anybody else in the organization behind it driving it. Some companies put too many restrictions on non-business conversations or don’t integrate the ESN into other processes. “There are lots of tools people use for ESNs, and each has its pluses and minuses,” he says. “We have used Socialcast from the beginning, and we are very happy with it. But it is not so much a tool issue as it is an ownership and community management issue—devoting the resources and time to make sure it is successful.”

Deloitte’s Stewart says there is considerable interest in the nexus of ESNs and gamification. Some companies are giving badges or stars for strong contributions to the enterprise social network. “But it is important to keep in mind that just as ESNs are not a panacea that work with 100 percent of employees, gamification also only works with some people some of the time,” he says. “It can help, but it is usually not something that converts employees. It might get you from 25 percent to 30 percent usage. It is a lift, but not transformative.”

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