The Evolution of Enterprise Social Networks

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Your company may or may not yet make use of an enterprise social network (ESN). While many have been around for a number of years and are successful, there are still some pockets of resistance. Other companies have tried and failed for reasons beyond the scope of this article. In fact, Gartner predicted a year ago that 80 percent of social business efforts would not achieve their intended benefits through 2015. Still, they also predicted that “by 2016, 50 percent of large organizations will have internal Facebook-like social networks, and that 30 percent of these will be considered as essential as email and telephones are today.”

So given the different experiences to date of companies and ESNs, discussing the evolution of ESNs is akin to the proverbial story of blind men describing an elephant after each has only experienced one part of the bigger picture. My experience in my company may not look anything like your experience in your company.

There are, in fact, two separate kinds of ESN evolution to consider: (1) that of the industry, practice, and technology as a whole, and (2) the evolution of an ESN within a particular organization. Just because the overall industry and professions associated with ESNs are developing rapidly does not mean that any particular company’s experience will mimic that larger picture. You might only have experienced the tusk of the potential ESN elephant rather than the larger creature in its full capacity.

The Evolution of Enterprise Social Networks

Last September 26, the weekly Twitter #ESNchat was devoted to the topic of the evolution of ESNs. The questions for that chat were:

  • What progression have you observed in the field of enterprise social networking through its history?
  • What are some major milestones you’ve witnessed in the industry to date?
  • Where do you see the field going in the next few years?
  • Within individual companies, what are typical stages of their ESN experience?

You’re welcome to browse the archive of that chat to benefit from the wisdom of its many participants in response to all four questions. To focus on just the second question, though, regarding major industry milestones, here are some of the responses offered by #ESNchat’s featured guest that week, Carrie Young of

  • Real customers with real deployments proving it could work;
  • Venture capital flowing into the ESN startup market with lots of companies springing up building apps and tools;
  • Integrations with “social” and traditional enterprise programs, indicating that “social” was finally accepted;
  • Acquisitions of ESNs by larger companies wanting in on the market (e.g., VMware acquiring Socialcast, Microsoft acquiring Yammer);
  • A new crop of startups trying to go for a mobile-first ESN market today.

As for ESN evolution within an enterprise, I can speak best about my company’s experience – one from which I have learned both from our mistakes as well as by doing a few things well.

I’ve learned, for example, that the early need to convince skeptics of the potential value of an ESN (especially those who hold the purse strings) is not a given. It doesn’t help that too many people refer to ESNs as “Facebook for the enterprise.” Stop doing that! To business leaders already skeptical of the business value of any form of social media, comparing the tool to Facebook is shooting yourself in the foot. I am convinced that every time the “Facebook in the enterprise” phrase is uttered, a soft, cuddly puppy is run over by a bulldozer, so stop it! Just stop it! Sell the idea of an ESN on how it will help you accomplish your business goals. Make the business case. Talk the language of business leaders and owners or you won’t get out of the starting gate. (And thank you, Joan Bodensteiner, for this article and infographic on the differences between an ESN and Facebook.)

So if you’re fortunate enough to get out of the starting gate in getting approval to pursue an ESN, there is much work to be done in hiring the right community manager, creating a plan, selecting the right vendor, launching to the appropriate initial audience, getting senior leader buy-in and participation, identifying and supporting early adopters, ongoing training, reporting successes, helping others continue to identify and execute use cases, integrating use into other tools and into business processes, and much, much more.

Failure to do any of the above can drastically alter the evolution of your organization’s experience with an ESN. Implementing an ESN cannot (or at least should not) be a time when anyone thinks “If we build it, they will come.” Nor should it be driven by a focus on the technology rather than the relationships and the social side of the experience. Those with such approaches are likely in the 80% of failures mentioned by Gartner in the first paragraph above.

Regardless of where you and your company are now in your use of an enterprise social network, there is much to be gained from the shared experiences of others who are passionate about and experienced with ESNs. To that end, I encourage you to glean from those involved in the field through a variety of means:

The ESN industry is still fairly young, at least compared to the other major communication channels that dominate business life. You and I can play a part in determining what its evolution looks like from here forward. I hope to see you on that journey.

Jeff Ross

Community Manager at Humana
Jeff is a Community Manager for Humana’s Enterprise Social Media team where he leads their 30,000-user enterprise social network, Buzz. He is the founder and host of the weekly Twitter chat #ESNchat for those interested in enterprise social networks ( He actively blogs on personal and professional topics at

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  1. […] Jeff Ross, founder of #ESNChat, explains the evolution of and predictions for enterprise social networks. Join us Jan 27 at 12pm EST for a live panel!  […]

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