Many leaders adopt enterprise social media (ESM) platforms as the cornerstone of their organization’s internal digital transformation with the hope that employees will reap the highly desirable benefits of knowledge sharing, collaboration, and efficiency. Still, employees often get lost during these strategic shifts because of the technical and cultural disconnect between ESM and the rest of the internal IT systems and digital platforms that they use in their day-to-day job-related activities. Research shows that less than 50% of ESM platforms are actually used by employees on a regular basis.
MIT Sloan Management Review’s 2017 Digital Business Global Executive Study and Research Project made it clear that implementing systemic changes in how companies organize could cultivate digitally minded cultures and experiences. Here we explain why companies should not introduce ESM in the workplace as a siloed system but rather as a strategic component of an organization’s digital portfolio and an integrated tool to support employees’ daily work. Our insights are based on a field study of a multinational cosmetic company that implemented an ESM platform to connect more than 4,500 employees, spread across 29 countries on five continents. ESM was added to an already tangled web of technologies meant to support communication and collaboration and, at the outset, less than 30% of this organization’s employees — and 8% of executives — contributed to ESM on a regular basis.
Employees Lost in Digital Transitions
As companies are attracted to the benefits of digitization, they ask their IT departments to equip employees with a rich digital portfolio that integrates platforms including team collaboration software, project management tools, chat-based software, internal knowledge management systems, and intranets.
At the same time, most ESM platforms are cloud-based applications. For the first time, the responsibility for a technology in the workplace falls at least partially outside the scope of the IT department. Thus, non-IT managers are asked to lead the cultural implementation of ESM in the workplace. However, in many situations when ESM is adopted, leaders fail to articulate priorities for navigating the thicket of all the digital tools that employees are expected to use in their day-to-day, job-related tasks.
When employees are not given guidance on how to navigate the different platforms that form their organization’s digital portfolio, they become lost in the digital transition. Paradoxically, connecting to ESM platforms requires disconnecting from existing patterns of communication and collaboration. For instance, one social media champion at the organization we studied cited the lack of interoperability between systems as the cause of employee frustration: “There is a competition in terms of digital tools, since the company offers other digital tools and email [applications] that are direct competitors to social media. I can [translate] my emails into tasks but I cannot do the same with social media.” The disconnect between an organization’s existing set of IT systems and newer, cloud-based technologies presents a very real hurdle to engaging employees on ESM.
The cultural and technical solutions to this problem need to work in concert.
ESM as the Hub of Your Internal Digital Portfolio
From a technical standpoint, organizations should position ESM as the hub that connects IT systems, business applications, collaborative tools, and digital platforms. With proper integration, employees are able to access various platforms such as the corporate intranet site, email, directories, document-sharing tools, forums, blogs, and wikis directly from the ESM platform with little effort. Better information flows between ESM and other digital and IT systems will increase adoption and efficiency.
Organizations that implement stand-alone ESM platforms can also contend with their fragmented systems by using application programming interfaces (APIs) to integrate ESM with preexisting digital tools such as a corporate intranet site, mobile applications, messaging systems, and third-party web applications. ESM platforms like Salesforce Chatter, Microsoft Yammer, or Workplace by Facebook offer open APIs that enable interoperability between ESM and other information technologies. IT departments and developers can contribute to social media success by leveraging APIs to integrate ESM platforms with internal applications and systems that are critical to their employees’ productivity. Developers can also customize ESM platforms for their employees by making it the focal entrance point to the employees’ digital portfolio. This can enhance the functionality of the ESM platform and improve employees’ comprehension of the platform as a working tool.
Demonstrate Leadership Buy-In and Showcase Best Practices
From a cultural vantage point, leaders need to articulate flexible principles that guide employees toward which digital platform is best used for which purpose, and then extoll unexpected uses of the technology that align with cultural aspirations.
For some employees, connecting to social media feels as if they are disconnecting from their jobs. Organizations should provide some early guidance as to how these tools can be used productively. For example, ESM platforms might be especially helpful for asynchronous brainstorming sessions with groups of geographically dispersed employees or for asking questions that the classic off-line network of employees cannot answer or that do not require an immediate answer. In contrast, email might be best for more formal communication on promotions, new organizational policies, and meeting agendas. Organizations should devise their own best practices for using digital tools, but some guidance at the beginning will help alleviate confusion for employees.
Leaders of these social media transformation initiatives should also watch out for unanticipated uses of ESM that match the values the organization aspires to embody and then extoll these unforeseen uses in stories and examples. Thus, during early implementation, guidance along with flexibility for the unexpected will help employees realize ESM is a process and not an event. As implementation matures, highlighting social media champions can inspire the rest of the organization. These champions show fellow colleagues how to best navigate digital transformation and integrate social media in their daily practices and routines.
To deliver on its promise, ESM needs to be thought of as the hub of an organization’s digital transformation. Organizations can seize this opportunity by carefully addressing any confusion this new implementation will cause employees and providing a clearer technical and cultural map of how to navigate ESM along with their existing digital tools.