Looking back at it from the vantage point of the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s clear now that most organizations missed a golden opportunity about five to seven years ago. This was the height of industry discussion around and worldwide business implementation of enterprise social networks, a leading form of internal online community.
Known in shorthand as the ‘ESN’, this emerging class of communication and mass engagement platform was inspired by the runaway growth and success of the global social media revolution. The ESN focused on creating a living, breathing organization-wide digital fabric of open connections, conversations, knowledge sharing, and meaningful collaboration that was as egalitarian as it was eminently useful.
Optimism was rife back then and progress seemed tantalizingly close in resolving the many issues with the aging model of corporate organizational hierarchies. There’s no doubt about it: The vision for the enterprise social network was as utopian as it was grand. I know, because I can count myself as one of the leading proponents of people-connected technologies back in that age. I even wrote a popular book on the subject, when the management and design theory behind it was known as social business.
But the ESN revolution was also grounded in using technology to go well beyond the limiting constraints of the real world when it comes to distance, time, experience, or access to leaders or subject matter experts. The ESN flourished in many organizations, and they still do, though I notice a distinctly more subdued tone today when I talk to ESN owners, practitioners, and the specialized staff that help them run well, community managers.
Back in those days, we eventually accumulated enough to experience to know what worked and what didn’t: It was easy to roll out the tools and hard to shift the culture and skills, but as an industry, we largely learned how to make them successful. For those that wanted it, a virtual organization of vibrant digital connections formed a network across the company that became a central conduit for learning, knowledge capture/management, operations at scale, vital peer-based support, and so much more.
However, the ESN was different enough that it required strong stakeholders and passionate evangelists who would rarely leave its side or tire. Since the heady early days, I’ve noticed that ESNs tend to come and go if their sponsors and/or champions move on. That’s not to say there haven’t been and don’t continue to be many success stories. There are.
The Need for Resilient Digital Communities Has Come Roaring Back
Enter the coronavirus. The dasher of hope and changer of worlds in so many ways. There have been few times in history where the workplace has been so thoroughly disrupted as it has been today by COVID-19. The workforces of virtually every organization globally is either on a mandatory work at home policy or soon will be. My analysis of what to do in the early days of being suddenly remote is easily one of the most popular things I’ve written in recent years.
To say most organizations are not ready to become “suddenly remote”, as the phrase of art has become, is an understatement. In short, organizations around the world have essentially been physically disbanded until further notice. This is an incalculable shift. Our Internet connections are now our main lifeline by far to our work lives, to our colleagues, and to our careers. It’s as isolating for many, as it is freeing for others.
As it turns out, remote work is also a profoundly different way of functioning in our jobs that is inherently less social (unless we substantially augment it to be otherwise), more siloed, and disconnected than most of us are prepared for. Especially when we have to work remotely all the time, for days, weeks, or months on end, which is the reality at this time.
The Return of the Enterprise Social Network
In the current period of prolonged dislocation from our old work lives, wouldn’t it be incredibly useful if we already had a robust digital support structure in place? One that we’ve long since carefully crafted and built up from the connections of people that we’ve met either physically or virtually. While we actually have that in the form of our consumer social networks (or at least many of us do), it’s almost completely out of context for our workplace needs.
It’s a shortcoming of our own making. Our attempts to train workers to be digitally savvy has had long and sustained gaps because we’ve been able to lean on our legacy physical skills and environments. In the past, I’ve attempted to describe the necessary digital skills to help workers adapt to this new work more gradually. They are all predicated on building modern social capital, meaning have a broad, diverse, and strong network of connections to people in today’s modern operating environment: The global digital networks that infuse everything today.
Yet in the context of our work at least, most of us are now completely lacking this social capital, these connections, or a virtual community around us, just when we need it most.
Instead, for those organizations that didn’t make the determined and sustained efforts to do the hard work of creating an enterprise social network (or equivalent), the workers who have been tossed overnight into entirely remote working situations are finding it hard going. Their familiar communal work environment is gone. Their outdated tools don’t keep them plugged into the pulse of the organization.
In fact, most workers badly need the resilient and vibrant connective tissue of an ESN, with all its rich user profiles, relationships between far flung connections, countless groups of local experts, reams of searchable open knowledge, and the deep insight that all these can provide to step in for the shockingly rapid loss of our physical world of work.
ESN/Community Practitioners and Executive Leaders: It’s Time to Seize the Day
To practitioners, I’ve started making it clear that this is a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime and historic opportunity to make your enterprise social network save the day when it comes to grounding and delivering a healthy remote organization. An effective ESN can connecting the organization back to itself far better than older tools by focusing on returning and then improving both the cultural “dial tone” and daily bustle of the organization. The practical benefits are significant: Actual outcome-based business impact by improving operations, productivity, and employee engagement. So this is your time to shine, whether you now need to develop an ESN and the communities within it, or supercharge the one that you have.
For business leaders, now is the time to put your organization on a modern digital platform that is far more resilient to disruption and that will both modernize it and make it much more effective. I encourage you to look at the baseline results you’re likely to get, which was published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Worst case is that you’ll achieve about a 25% productivity increase for your investment, which is fairly modest compared to CRM or ERP systems. You will however be required to invest in more staff than is typical for a traditional IT solution (the why and how many is here, but it’s not large compared to major productivity losses for remote workers without a strong supporting network.) Don’t wait. Support the ESN and online community champions trying to help you.
For both, this is the time to learn that advanced preparedness for going all digital is critical. We live in exponential times of change, and this also seems to mean large and more frequent disruptions. Those with the healthiest, best connected, and engaged digital networks of workers will experience the least disarray and breakdown when major events like coronavirus take place. Let’s learn from not making the most of these powerful tools the first time around. It’s now time to fully commit to building the best possible connected organization for next time around.
Final Note: Before you ask me about why ESNs and not team chat apps like Slack or Microsoft Teams, it’s because the ESN scales conversations and engagement up to the size of the enterprise. Almost all orgs are already using Slack and Teams, and it gives them a much narrower and far more limited view of what’s happening. In an ESN, all contributions are visible by default across the whole organization, content types are more sophisticated, and as you can see below in additional reading, they can be used for advance change processes like enterprise-wide digital transformation. ESNs are strategic. Team chat is useful, but tactical.