Social learning, informal learning and social networking have become some of the hottest buzzwords in the learning industry today. The social concept in its entirety is being touted as the next best thing, a must-have, but is it all that it’s cracked up to be? Can social networking be successfully incorporated into learning strategies? How difficult is implementation and social networking adoption across organizations? Further, will organizations be able to derive real and demonstrable value from social networking technology as competitive differentiation?
Enterprise social networks are private internal software platforms designed to engage employees while fostering collaboration, communication, knowledge sharing and informal learning. ESN origins can be traced back to the early 1990s when corporate intranets and extranets were widely held as the leading networks for enterprise knowledge-sharing. By the early 2000s, networking technology had evolved into public-facing online social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. For some platforms, access to these networks can easily be extended beyond the enterprise to include business partners, customers, vendors, investors and other stakeholders.
Enterprise Social Networks 101
The rise of social technology soon migrated to the enterprise. According to market intelligence firm International Data Corp.’s “Worldwide Enterprise Social Software 2013-2017 Forecast,” the worldwide enterprise social software applications market’s revenue was valued at $1 billion in 2012, and market revenue could grow to $2.7 billion by 2017.
ESN evolved from the same premise as online public-facing networks — the social networking technologies that have helped people connect personally offer equal opportunity to connect people within their business enterprise. Some of the more common functions of an ESN platform include activity streams, discussion forums, user groups, private messaging, subject matter expert identification, searchable knowledge base, file-sharing, tagging and bookmarking. Many of these functions resemble those within public social media; however, enterprise system interactions are private and secure within an organization.
ESN platforms can be developed internally or provided by a software vendor. They can be installed behind a firewall or offered as cloud-based technology. Vendor-supplied platforms can be standalone or integrated to work with other enterprise software applications such as human resources information systems, contact management databases, talent management systems and learning management systems. There are also ESN platforms that come as an out-of-the-box feature set within some learning management systems.
The benefits of implementing ESN platforms include cost reductions, employee engagement, open collaboration, increased innovation, bridging the gap between formal and informal learning, increased business performance and enhanced competitive advantage. As such, today social technologies are being incorporated into everyday decision-making and business processes for every aspect of business.
ESNs Can Enhance Learning
While formal development offerings are a mainstay in corporate learning, organizations can enhance their learning and development strategies by incorporating social and informal initiatives. Industry research suggests 70 to 80 percent of learning is informal; therefore, including social networking in learning strategies provides for more complete learning environments.
Brandon Hall Group’s June 2013 research brief, “The Evolution of Social Learning: Challenges in Leveraging Collaboration & Technology,” suggests that in light of new social technologies, organizational learning has shifted to relationship-centered learning in that everything in the learning ecosystem is connected and these relationships can easily be useful.
Through social networking, learners can share knowledge and work experience, ask and reply to questions and provide feedback, enabling them to relate formal learning programs back to the work environment. Not only can organizations push training out to their learners, through social networking learners can pull related and desirable information from their colleagues and peers when they need it and when they are most receptive to it. These technology-enabled relationships can enhance learners’ knowledge and work performance while increasing organizational efficiencies and overall business performance.
Further, organizations that choose to listen to these types of social conversations can easily identify trends where information may be lacking and work to fill these voids through new courses, modified development materials or related support documentation.
Setting Up the Technology
Technology is considered a strategic asset for many organizations and is recognized as an integral part of business strategy because organizations can use it to maximize employees’ contributions and performance. For example, Forrester Consulting’s June 2010 research report, “Social Networking in the Enterprise: Benefits and Inhibitors,” suggests adoption of enterprise social technologies is being pushed by a perfect storm of drivers. Organizations are investing in knowledge workers as a source of competitive advantage to drive faster innovation, and social software is being used to better engage and promote business growth in an increasingly distributed working environment.
ASCO Numatics, maker of fluid control products, provides automation for a wide range of industry-focused applications. According to John Molloy, a training manager at the company, implementing enterprise social networking technology is critical for an organization’s overall business goals and success. Among Molloy’s top drivers for wanting to implement ESN are better use of shared knowledge, reduced time to market for new products and increased employee engagement.
As appealing as this technology may be, however, there may still be challenges with implementation. Specifically, Molloy said there is a learning curve for employees who are late adopters of electronic or Internet-based technologies. Essentially, they need to form the habit of using technology. “To help overcome this, incentives for users can be deployed in the initial launch process,” he said. “Providing training and showing how the technology could benefit all users as well as the organization’s combined goals of shared knowledge and growth may also assist in overcoming these challenges.”
Of the many options available for enterprise social networking platforms, Molloy said platforms that offer a mobile application and can be integrated with a document management system provide the most value to an organization.
In addition to knowledge-sharing, Valerie Goodwin-Adams, director of marketing with Abaxis Inc., a medical device manufacturer, said some of the key drivers for implementing ESN technology are also reduced travel expenses and increased sales revenues.
“The greatest challenge to overcome when implementing an enterprise social networking platform is adoption, then it’s training and measurement. I believe that if you cannot measure it in terms of sales, then it’s not relevant,” Goodwin-Adams said. She said the best way to overcome these challenges is by educating the organization and showing positive revenue results.
Where’s the Business Value?
When debating the business value that using ESN technology can provide, it may help to seek opinions from executives outside learning and development. Since ESN origins began with public-facing online social networks, there is wisdom available from those who are already familiar with the notion of social, such as leaders from corporate marketing.
“Any activity that enhances communication and helps organizations to move forward faster better positions the business to respond to customer needs,” said Jeff Tyminski, former vice president of marketing at ASCO Numatics. “Often, the executives outside of the marketing organization do not realize the power of social networking and for the most part are skeptical of its use in the organization.”
In the 2011 report “Social Software for Business Performance,” consulting firm Deloitte indicated that effectively targeting high-impact opportunities to apply social software can help companies generate tangible, near-term operating results. “As the organization builds confidence and proficiency using social software, it can expand use of the tool to address additional attractive opportunities where the potential impact and the employee engagement are high. Companies can reap significant financial rewards and develop skills and experience that have the potential to help them build a stronger competitive position over time,” the report said.
The current economic climate is challenging. The global marketplace is in a constant state of change and is more connected than ever before. Further, differentiation is difficult, and competition becomes more aggressive every day. To improve competitiveness in this type of environment, companies should emphasize open communications and transparency as well as having a knowledgeable and empowered talent pool.
Businesses of all sizes have to go all out to maximize their competitiveness and profitability. They need to optimize business performance at all levels to gain competitive advantage and increase revenue. By incorporating social networking into learning, learning and development leaders can harness more organizational knowledge, cultivate more internal communities based on collaboration, and ultimately create a positive effect on employee performance that contributes to business value.
Learn how to avoid problems when initiating social learning in the sidebar to this feature, "Three Ways to Overcome Social Learning Implimentation Pitfalls."