This is part 7 of a 12-part series on building a successful enterprise social network (ESN). These 12 tips are ones that after careful reflection I promote as vital to the success of the ESN I’ve managed for a Fortune 100 company the past 4+ years, and I believe they have applicability to other organizations as well, large and small. Here’s tip #7:
Encourage business and non-business content.
If an ESN is about accomplishing business objectives via connecting people, being open and human and transparent, and building relationships with others around areas of mutual interest, then it is important that we not only allow but encourage ESN users to have conversation and fun in such an online community just as we hope it happens in the face-to-face experiences of employees who work together. What business would ever impose a rule that says “No talking about non-business, personal matters while at your desk” (or on the phone, or via email, etc.)? What employee would remain in such an environment for long?
We want employees to develop meaningful relationships at work. That adds to the experience and encourages longevity when there is a sense of community and friendship among those with whom we spend so many hours of a typical week. There is value in sharing personal aspects of our lives that help others get to know us. It’s hard to dislike and distrust someone with whom you connect on a personal level around shared interests and passions. Understanding more of the people one works with increases the likelihood that those individuals will work together well on projects that arise where both are stakeholders.
Yes, there can be frivolous content shared on an ESN just as there is on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media platform. But guess what? That same frivolous information is shared face-to-face and over cube walls and walking down a hallway and sitting in a break room every day in businesses, and we don’t think twice about it happening in those contexts. In an age where more and more business relationships are virtual, where there is less face-to-face and more online interactions dispersed across worldwide participants, we must not only allow, but openly encourage that same level of non-business sharing and development of relationships on an ESN. With greater numbers of workers having flexible schedules and opportunities to work at home some or all of the time, the need for simple, human interaction at a personal level remains and must be satisfied if we are to be content at a deep, personal level.
In the early days of my company’s use of our ESN, I was copied on an email chain that made its rounds among upper management before it ever made its way to me. In the email, one manager who didn’t want any non-business discussions at all on our ESN sent an email to a VP asking “Why don’t we just ban any of that kind of discussion?” Fortunately, the VP’s simple, one-line response was “because that’s not the way of the world.”
We do have certain content that HR does not allow – for example, anything that is considered solicitation to buy, sell or trade personal items or to invite employees to external events not officially sponsored by the company. While I disagree with that policy as unnecessarily restrictive and I hope that new or newly enlightened leadership reverses that policy, I am required to enforce it in my role for now. Other non-business subjects, though, are allowed – even the hot button issues around politics and religion, although the discussions have to occur in groups set up for the purpose and participants have to follow the guidelines for treating others with respect along the way.
It’s been interesting to see the mix of business/non-business content on our ESN through the years. We’re able to measure it because I tag all groups as being primarily business or non-business and we created a utility that categorizes the content accordingly. In the early days of 2010 after its launch, the typical mix was 55% business and 45% non-business. That was OK, although I would have liked a higher business percentage out of the gate. That split contributed to the misperception that what happened on the ESN was worthless chatter. Over time, though, we’ve seen that split continually inch more in the business direction. It soon shifted to 60/40, then 65/35, and the first five months of 2014 have seen a split of 71% business and 29% non-business. I believe that the shift is occurring as more and more people realize the business value of the platform and start shifting more conversations and business processes to the ESN. While the initial draw to the ESN for some may still be the Dog Lovers or Music Lovers groups or one of hundreds of other non-business groups, it appears that once they are there they discover other business value and dive in to those opportunities.
Businesses invest in enterprise social networks because they believe an ESN can help them communicate more effectively and efficiently, and because they believe there is business value in making that investment. We certainly want the majority of what happens on our ESN to be business/professional in nature and it is. But we also want to recognize the newer, virtual means of working that consumes such a large part of many workers’ days, and acknowledge that the human, interpersonal aspect of work is still as important as ever. If work is becoming more virtual, then so must be the relationship building and the non-business, fun moments that bring us together or give us a much needed break from the routine.
If you have those skeptical about allowing non-business content on an ESN, I hope you will share some of the above rationale with them in your effort to implement tip #7 for building a successful ESN:
Encourage business and non-business content.
See the following posts for previous tips in this series: