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Rethinking enterprise social networks

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As anyone involved in the world of knowledge management knows, a few years ago the term "social" hit the marketplace. Social was a term that went hand in hand with E 2.0, the reinvention of the enterprise. It seemed that KM's day had finally arrived, but it was not to be. New names like Yammer and Jive were catching attention, and many enterprises invested heavily in social networking.

Indeed, few large enterprises have not experimented with social networking platforms over the past few years, for both customer and employee engagement. Yet, at best, the results of those experiments were inconclusive, and considerable skepticism exists regarding the usefulness of those overly broad use cases. All too often the attempted use of social networks has resulted in a briefly adopted and quickly abandoned echo chamber within the enterprise, or a noisy and distracting public address system for customer-facing situations.

It would be easy to push social technologies to the periphery, left for use by a small number of employees eager to manage and interact, creating yet more silos of potentially useful, but isolated enterprise data, or for customer-facing social efforts dumped on novices without proper oversight or the ability to execute the interactions that are generated—all while poorly representing the brand in public. Neither of those outcomes is desirable, but they are typical without clear connections to real business processes. Approaching social as a layer that supports a process, rather than simply another channel to manage, can greatly help progress. In this article, we look at some of the ways in which social networks can be deployed to successfully support business processes.

What we at 451 Research are observing—in terms of the repositioning of social as a "lite" integration layer—is the work of early adopters and is far from the norm at present. Much skepticism remains, despite more thoughtful and valued use of social networking technologies today.

Inside the enterprise—employee-facing

In research with user organizations, 451 Research has found that the ugly truth about enterprise business applications (such as CRM, HR or ERP systems) is that the majority of their functions are never needed or accessed (Download Chart 1). For example, an employee might only use an HR system to enter a vacation request or to change address details. Employees find accessing complex systems to undertake simple tasks like that frustrating. Although time lost can be hard to quantify, few organizations would dispute that over investment and subsequent underuse of locked-in legacy business applications and data silos have become costly issues.

In response, we are starting to see early adopters across a range of industry verticals in the United States and in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Asia) exploring the use of social network investments to build more efficient work practices within the enterprise. They are using social tools across an existing business process, within which users can then be guided to specific actions, either by their peers ("Where's the travel workflow?" ... "Here's a link to it.") or through scheduling alerts via a simple workflow into an activity stream ("It's time to update your timesheets." "Click here to get started."). Vendors like Salesforce.com and Adobe, for example, are using their social tools now to perform a degree of process integration within their marketing cloud suites, using social to "glue" together disparate applications in a user-friendly product suite.

As a logical short-term fix to integration mapping against business processes, vendors can guide users through their suite's various moving parts to achieve a desired result. Similarly, mobile applications are being used to provide nodal elements along more complex business workflows—for example, providing approval points and guiding users toward a resolution point that might be buried deep inside an enterprise application. That layered approach has a number of advantages for both the vendor and the user, because it helps to improve and reinforce the collaborative capabilities inherent in any enterprise workforce. It can also help leverage data records that are all too often locked away in inaccessible applications and silos. By applying social networking technology to a process, rather than considering social purely as a publishing channel, it can become a place where a process is recorded, discussed and ultimately executed. The result is continued business engagement and continued employee collaboration centered on a shared working activity.

Outside the enterprise—customer-facing

Considering and using social networking technologies as a social integration layer rather than a publishing and communications channel requires something of a mind shift. In customer-facing situations, social media is most commonly seen as just another channel that requires fulfilling, another channel to publish to. Where that can change is to provide a conversational context attached to a publishing activity.

An example is the U.K.'s Metropolitan London Police Service. In 2013, every division of the London Metropolitan Police has a designated Twitter  account for updates on police operations to provide associated citizen advice. The organization recognizes the importance of social posts at an informational level, but also engages in conversations with its citizen customers, often in support of greater campaigns. The latter concept-social media being used to augment and promote other material-is the important one. Social can then be used to raise the profile of marketing assets in other channels, as well as through traditional customer service and support systems.

In some cases, we will wish to "convert" the conversation to an alternative channel (such as a call center or an e-mail exchange) or continue to have the discussion in a channel of a customer's choosing. Attempting to convert too early in this process ("Sorry to hear that, call us at 1-800 ... ") can have a number of negative consequences; any opportunity to filter the cause of the problem could be lost immediately. Any opportunity to understand or mitigate the risk of that customer not calling the call center is also lost. A proper handover from a social network to an actual contact center can ensure that the friction of that process is reduced, and there is less chance that it will be unsuccessful. For example, hospitality chains such as Hilton and Starwood Hotels are effectively using social as a customer support triage station, forming an important part of the ongoing relationship between customer and enterprise.

Market analysis

No two social networks are alike—there is little to no interoperability between platforms, and integration points with third-party applications are often nonexistent or proprietary. Understandably, vendors with applications of their own will prioritize them when it comes to integration and interoperability with their social network. For some buyers, it will not represent a problem, but for others it is a major obstacle. So, interest in agnostic platforms continues. As the trend toward using social as a layer rather than a channel builds, we expect to see more interest in agnostic platforms, such as those provided by Citrix, Jive, VMware and TIBCO, as well as pressure on relatively closed platforms like Oracle, SAP and Salesforce to open up further.

The rush to "do social" in the first half of this decade left a fragmented marketplace, where virtually every enterprise software provider has some form of social platform designed to be used in employee-facing situations. Today vendors such as IBM (Connections), salesforce.com (Chatter), SAP (Jam) and Oracle (Oracle Social) are beginning to position social technologies more as a primary interface for employees to work with their respective business application stacks.

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