I recently completed my Masters in Information Systems Management at Warwick Business School, where I was fortunate to study under Ola Henfridsson, Professor of Information Systems and Management at WBS, and a leading authority on digital innovation, digital infrastructure, platforms and technology management.

For my dissertation I chose to focus on the role of Enterprise Community Management in getting success from collaborative and social technologies. I learned a great deal in the process, and I’d like to share some thoughts on how I came to study this area, how I went about doing it and of course the insights and findings from my research.

My interest in collaborative technologies

I’ve always been passionate about the role of technology in business, and through my previous experience as a desktop and network support engineer at a large insurance company I witnessed first-hand what it means to change-manage the introduction of a new Intranet for a large employee base spread across a number of different locations. I learned that trying to change how people work using technology is a very challenging and demanding task, one that requires proper investment, careful planning, and finally, ongoing efforts in order to succeed.

I also learned that although our implementation was effective from a technical and business perspective, there was something missing that could have taken our organization to the next level. Our Intranet did not allow our employees to communicate with each other and collaborate on common issues at work. Employees logged into their system, worked inside their little “box”, and then logged out. And of course the phone lines were busy all day and people would exchange numerous emails because they had to communicate in some way to sort their problems out and carry on with their tasks.

I’m not saying it didn’t work – sure it did. But was it really the best we could offer to them? Were we taking advantage of the combined knowledge in the business to offer a single touch point to share important information? Did we give them the ability to express their ideas and share them with others across the organization? Not with our implementation, certainly not. Instead we were imposing the usage of a rigid, fully controlled system that only allowed a one-way communication channel: top-down. Bottom-up wasn’t part of the plan back then.

Focusing on the area of enterprise social networking

When it came to choosing a subject for my research and dissertation, it was an obvious choice for me to focus on the area of enterprise social networking. This captured my interest because rather than offering employees a predisposed set of instructions that specify who does what and when and who makes decisions, this technology lets people decide how to use the system based on what they think is best for them and thus actively shape it, using it to create networks for communicating and exchanging knowledge. This seemed to provide the answers to the problems I encountered back at my insurance company.

So I decided to focus on the use of enterprise social networks (ESNs), and narrowed my research down further to the specific area of Community Management, an emergent, leadership role which often evolves as part of the job description for internal communications staff and involves fostering the active use of an ESN aligned to business value.

Convinced that community management had to be a critical factor to the successful adoption of ESNs, I conducted a series of interviews with people taking on this role in modern organizations that have implemented ESNs from two major vendors: Yammer and Jive. I was greatly assisted in this by Steve and Emma from the Yammer team in London, and by Nick and Chris at Betterworking.

I was determined to find out what the setting looks like in such business environments and what kind of challenges these organizations are facing, who these emergent leaders are and what kind of practices they adopt in managing and supporting their online communities, and finally, what are the outcomes from their efforts.

The challenge of ESN adoption and other key findings

Through my research I made some significant discoveries that are platform independent, and which I believe every organization that has either implemented, or is considering the implementation of an ESN needs to factor into their thinking. I discovered that ESNs have big implications for the organizations implementing them, and that their adoption entails significant challenges which often pose great obstacles to the overall success of these large-scale social initiatives.

It became apparent from my research that leadership and executive sponsorship are vital, without which organizations are doomed to fail in providing employees with anything more than a “Facebook experience”. ESNs have the potential to offer much more than “water cooler discussions” to a business, but due to their special nature, the benefits they bring to an organization vary in accordance with the needs of every individual.

In order for people to join in and make these platforms part of their daily workflows, everyone in the organization, from the most junior to the most senior person, needs to understand on a personal level how the platform can benefit him or her as an individual, and how it can benefit the organization as a whole. Reaching out and communicating this message is a very challenging and demanding task, particularly in large-scale businesses operating in multiple locations. A task that also increases in complexity in organizational settings characterized by traditional cultures and communication silos, which prevent people from sharing information and collaborating with others across the business.

Community Management is key to ESN success

To counter these obstacles and maximize the business impact of their platforms, organizations need to properly invest in community management if they are to change people’s mindsets regarding the way they communicate and work. As the outcomes of this research suggest, businesses need to deploy dedicated community managers who will lead the combined efforts of growing and sustaining online communities that will unite people and empower them to achieve great things. Only then will organizations be able to get these tools off the ground and reap the true benefits that they can offer.

Before I embarked on this project I believed that enterprise social tools have the potential to change the way people work. Now that my research is complete, I am convinced that this is actually going to happen over the next ten years, and my personal goal is to apply my learning and insights to help organizations turn their vision of a better workplace into a reality, by taking advantage of these powerful tools to leverage the value of their people.

I’d love to hear your feedback!

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