Do we lack the tools to steer ESN adoption?

It’s been a long time since I last used Facebook. I’d like to say it’s totally out of a philosophical belief that we aren’t meant to be the product – don’t get me wrong, it’s partly because of that-, but it’s got more to do with my dwindling motivation. I like to assess my use of any app through the Return On my Time Investment. And because of its recent (or not so recent) algorithmic updates, my FB newsfeed has lost its edge when compared to my Twitter timeline.

But this is just FB. Leaving it might disconnect you from the latest updates in your friends’ social lives, but it won’t hinder you professionally (unless you’re a web marketer or a Facebook employee that is). But what is of an Enterprise Social Network (ESN)?

Many vendors boast about the gain in productivity and the rise of innovation following the implementation of ESNs. Yet, what business value can you extract from a deserted social network? It is no surprise that adoption is the main issue with many ESN implementations. But how do you get people who are already swamped with work-related tasks to fully engage within a social network? And once there, how do you retain them on the network?

This is a heavy loaded question with no easy answer. A first step would require understanding the motivation behind our staying or leaving (aka churning) an online social network. A rather comprehensive presentation of the question has been issued by Karnstedt et al. in their paper “Churn in Social Networks”:

A key observation of user behaviour in online networks is that users, with the exception of spammers, make contributions to online discourse without expecting any immediate return [39,11]. In sociological discourse, this type of activity is described in terms of the ‘gift economy’ [58]. In contrast to the commodity or service economy, which is driven by the exchange of good/services for money, economic exchange in the gift economy is defined in terms of an im- plicit social contract. In a gift transaction, there is an unstated expectation that the benefits of a gift will be reciprocated by the recipient at some reasonable time in the future. A more risky transaction involves ‘generalised exchange’, whereby the giver’s generosity is reciprocated, not by the recipient, but by someone else in the group. In social networks, this exchange mechanism applies to those contributors who give of their time and expertise but do not appear to receive immediate benefits. However, there is a risk that the group will not assume responsibility for the debt and the contributor will never be reimbursed in kind. In the worst case, if all members of the group never contribute (free-load), no one benefits and the exchange system breaks down.

This gets more delicate when applied within an enterprise because, well the stakes are higher for obvious reasons, and because what’s going on offline (office politics and such) is bound to affect the dynamics within the social network. Fingers are often pointed towards Enterprise culture and justifiably so. Culture does eat technology for breakfast!

Some argue that internal community management could help ESNs thrive, but it can only do as much. Data-driven approaches that proclaim the capacity of steering the community through web-based analytics are abundant. They could help understand the dynamics of the network, if only they focused equally on the relational aspects of the social network as they do on the content and activities occurring within the network.

Maybe the difficulties of adoption are only made more poignant because of the lack of pertinent methodologies to support the endeavor. What if we could visualize the network in real-time (through Social Network Analysis)? Augment it with activity-based indicators (number of posts of a user, numbers of views of a profile etc.)? What if we could even envision the future state of the network based on the patterns in its historical data and thus predict the likeliest users to churn (As is the case for online games platforms or telecom companies)?

Maybe that will steer the adoption efforts in a more accurate manner and maybe it won’t. I’m nothing saying it’s not a complex question, but wouldn’t hurt to dwell on it, would it?