What does it take to become a social business?


Two years ago IBM put social business on the map and told the world that they had to become a social business too; “Get Social, Do Business”. At Connect 2011 IBM told the world what you could and should do to become a social business and Connect 2012 it were the customers telling other customers how they have become a social business. That was really powerful as it shows the (sometimes intangible) benefits of a social business. And that last remark is interesting, as most companies want to know the ROI upfront before investing in Enterprise Social Software (ESS). As I was listening to the audio book Enterprise 2.0 by Andrew McAfee in my car (which explains why I can’t tell on which page I have the quote, so my apologies upfront) there was also the statement in the last chapter that the ROI case is not always to make with 2 digits after the “.”.

The ROI of ESS is not immediate as e.g. the implementation of a digital telephony system or a web conferencing system. It requires more time and effort on the part of cultural change management and getting social embedded into the existing processes of an enterprise. This does not mean that there is no ROI case to make!  There are a lot of success stories of the use of ESS and there are also reports of e.g. McKinsey, that state that enterprises using social business are outperforming the companies that don’t. IBM even delivers workshops and other services like the Business Value Assessment focused on the benefits of becoming a social business, providing clients and business partners with case study examples of successful social businesses, and helping them to develop an agenda for driving social adoption.There are a lot of examples benefits of what social business has brought companies that started to use enterprise social software. Most of the examples on that blog post give hard numbers or time reduction, but the best example is TD Bank. The result they had with their ESS was that the employees were proud of their bank, felt valued and had more trust. Those things are not measurable in hard currency, but real value for your enterprise.

So the question is not whether you should become a social business, but whenwill you start?


There are a lot of white papers, blogs and books about how to become a social business. Sandy Carter has written in her book Get Bold: Using Social Media to Create a New Type of Social Business about the Social business agenda to help companies to become a social businesses.

The focus in the book is on the organizational aspect of becoming a social business and the conclusion is that becoming a social business is not about IT, but it is all about people!

Reading blog posts, reports and other information I see that the rule of thumb is that the effort to become a social business is 20% IT and 80% change management. This blog entry will not focus on the change management and cultural aspects of becoming a social business, but on what platform/ features do you need to offer your employees to accept and enable them to work socially?


Before an enterprise is selecting an ESS platform what are the specifications of that tool. In my opinion it is key that formal requirements are set up. Why?

Because the tools should be consistent with the goals. To give an example: Capgemini choose to use Yammer as they ESS tool, but the employees know that “no confidential or client-specific matters are discussed”. So how can you work and not be able to discuss freely about your work? Seems like rowing with your hands tied to your back. When I read the blog my impression here was that management saw that they had a lot of people subscribed to Yammer and management thought: well lets turn it on to start Social. Not realizing the shortcomings of the solution they chose. Another reason could be they wanted to get control over the freemium environment and then had to pay up to be able to administer the users. And when they finally had control they found out that a lot of users had only a profile but were no longer active user (probably as there was no change management / cultural change to promote and keep people engaged).

So my point here is: think before buying ESS platform! Check your goals and set the requirements to achieve those goals. It is just like one would do with the purchase of any software program. But the question then arise: what are the must have specifications to look for?


In the blog entry The ROI of Enterprise Social Networking, It’s like Pushing a Button there is a nice metaphor for the nice key features of an ESS platform:

Red ButtonWouldn’t it be great to have a big red “Ask” button on your mobile phone, iPad, and browser that instantly connects you to everyone in your organization when you need something? And how great would it be to have a big green “Share” Button to update you teammates and management on your work, interests, and experiences?  Better yet, the big buttons were smart enough to connect you to the right people, without spamming or bothering those who weren’t available.

It is a nice and simple description of an ESS platform, but in reality there is off course more to it. The rest of this blog entry will try to describe (IMO) the key features.

Open and Flexible Platform

The first and most important requirement of ESS that is should be an open and flexible platform for anyone to use within the enterprise. Don’t go for point solutions, but make sure that specific solution integrates into your ESS platform.

Why should you have an open extensile platform? Because the pace of innovation is going fast, you cannot rely on an ESS solution that gives an update only once every 3 or 4 years. Three years ago Android had a small market share, two years ago an iPad was non-existent and now we see Pintrest coming up on as the latest social phenomena. To support these fast changes in the outside world, make sure you get an open an extensible platform with a regular functional release cycle. In the industry software vendors are getting into more frequent release cycles. No releases to only fix bugs and security patches, but real big functional improvement cycles. When you look at mobile apps the update cycle is very quick. This way the end user get new incremental functional updates ad fixes, but you don’t want to patch the core of your ESS system every two or three months.

The reason to have an open standards based ESS platform is to assure that you can leverage the power of your platform to incorporate the latest trends and you can incorporate these into your business processes into the social platform. It will also allow you to integrate other existing or new corporate systems, intranets and processes. Here you can think e.g. about SharePoint Web Parts, ActivityStrea.ms, oAuth, OpenSocial, CMIS, Widgets, etc. to enhance your platform and embed and integrate social into the enterprise.

Openness also means that the consumption of the ESS services should be independent of the (browser) platform it runs on (Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc.).  And, looking at the growth of mobile usage of the Internet, ESS should have apps for all major mobile operating systems. These apps should deliver all capabilities to the end-user. So don’t limit the mobile end user to e.g. only see and use the activity stream but make sure the end user can access the all ESS services of your platform. To conclude: bring (integrate) social into your enterprise (processes), don’t bring your enterprise processes into the ESS platform. Social Everywhere!

ESS Networking

As has been said before ESS is about people and the way they can Find, Reach and Collaborate with each other. Reading (euh listening to – in my case) the Enterprise 2.0 book of McAfee the concept of strong and weak tries was explained as one of the basic principles of Social Networks. And this is the core feature of the ESS platform: finding people and maintaining a relationship and exchanging information.

There are a lot of platforms that have a profile page and have a message board (Twitter). But one feature that is key is the tagging of information and people, e.g. within Connections everything is tagged. So based on a tag I can find everything, whether it is a blog, a file or a person. So finding people based on tagging allows me to find expertise, as you don’t search for a name, but you search for expertise. In 1999 someone said to me: “You don’t know much, but you do know who knows it or where to find the information.” Well, I had my brain tagging right, but it was all inside my head. People had to know me first before finding information and when I left the company the knowledge network was gone. So tagging is key, because it allows others to discover information with a social search within the ESS platform. Even if people have left the company the digital footprint will remain and will point people into the right direction.

The message board will help to get the discussion going and to keep in contact with you network. On the board people can let others know what they are working, ask for help, answer questions. It gets the conversation in the open (also know as working out loud) and no longer stored in email conversations. It is also a tool that helps to stay in contact as people are not always at the office.

Another aspect of an open ESS platform is that the personal (social) information is available in every context possible: web pages, instant messaging, email, Office and other collaboration environments. When ever you look at data within the ESS platform, relevant people should be visible. As there is so much content available it is important to know who has created it and it is good to be able to see who that person is and to be able to contact via mail, message board, instant messaging, etc.


In the previous paragraph I mentioned: Find, Reach and Collaborate. Finding the right people within the ESS platform is key. The second step is to be able to connect with these people with one click of the mouse (or for that matter the touch of a finger). The third step is to collaborate with others. Writing blogs, collaborate in wikis, generate ideas, share files and bookmarks, discuss in forums, etc. Communities are key in getting work done. Here information is shared within the context of the community. If someone needs to find information, a community is often a good starting point to get information, but also “meet” a group of people to network with, that are participating on the topic. And if you don’t find your answer you have a community filled with people that work on the topic you can ask a question. In the context of the community it is also important to have an activity stream to know what is going on within a community.


The third key feature is social analytics. As there is so much content created information overload. Analytics can help to filter and suggest content for the end user. Currently we see that activity streams (activitystrea.ms) as a new standard of informing users what is happening within their network. In Facebook I can see what my friends are up to. If I miss something, no problem and the number and activities of my friends are limited. So it is manageable. In my work I would go crazy if all updates of my network would show up. It would be like a fire hose in full force. Here is where analytics come in and can filter out and present the relevant information, transforming the fire hose in a garden hose. The activity stream will give updates on what is important and where action is needed. Gartner describes in the next generation of collaboration services this as the new way of working, where tweets, processes and activities show up in the stream.

The second good thing about analytics is content suggestion. This means that when new content is posted in my area of expertise, it will show up as interesting for me. Like I said before: there is too much content being created to keep up with, so this will help. And not only content, but also people (I ought to know) are suggested by the system. So when new hires or people learned new skills that are related to your expertise area you are notified of their existence.

Third: Analytics is key to drive the adoption of your ESS. If you can measure what is going on within the system, you can check the goals you have set to achieve with your ESS. Analytics on the level of communities are even more interesting as you can drive and control the community if you know who are the (top) contributors, what content is popular etc.

Governance, risk management, and compliance

Governance is important to tell people what they can do, supposed to do and what they shouldn’t do within the ESS platform. Most of the time there will be no trouble as ESS is used  within an enterprise environment where people act with a certain level of professionalism and everything added to the system has the name of the author. But there is always the possibility that someone can always misinterpret a written message. So every ESS needs to have the option to flag content.

Compliancy is a big issue as more and more regulation is put in place by governments and institutions. Compliancy within an ESS platform should provide the ability to monitor, track, and quickly pull out relevant data around conversations, posts and file uploads. For email and other systems this is often already in place, but it is also necessary for the social content that is generated, e.g. with the partnership with Actiance IBM Connections is providing a level of auditability in the technology, where every notification, every event, will be captured, archived in real-tim, and then made available through a substantial discovery process. If an employee posts insider-trading information to a blog, and later removes that post–but not before someone viewed it–an audit trail will preserve the evidence.


In the list of must haves I did not mention the blog, wiki, forum, file sharing, social bookmarking functionalities specifically. I see these applications within ESS as a given, like a bike has pedals. Most of these applications can be found within most ESS solutions. One thing I would like to mention here is that it is important for user adoption to have to features available in the context of the users workplace. That can be: posting a Word document into a blog, adding a file into the file share environment of the ESS platform by using drag and drop within Windows Explorer, uploading pictures from a mobile device into an activity stream or share a file from within a community into a Enterprise content management system. Integration is key and it works both ways, e.g. showing social information about the sender in your email client, or integrating email – social email – into the homepage of your ESS.

Social Personal File Management

One key differentiator is the file sharing functionality. What is not important is the place to store the file, or we would all be using Dropbox, but it is the capability to tag, like, share and collaborate around a document. No longer are files being placed on a shared drive, copied, modified recopied etc. There is one version and people will share links, where it is important that the link is “filename” proof (URL does not contain title) as with a rename the URL breaks. Here a nice Youtube video:

that shows the concept of social filesharing and a more traditional approach. One important feature that is important is to see your collaboration. What I mean by this is that the user can see what people have downloaded the file and have re-shared the file. This will give the user the ability to see his tippers; the people that will help him to spread his knowledge.


As I tried here to give you some pointers on the must haves of an Enterprise Social Software platform it is up to you to make a choice on what platform will suit your enterprise best.

First make sure you have the cultural change management in place. Set your goals and set the requirements list with your must haves. These are different for every company and even for every department. So talk to communications, HR, etc to ensure you can deliver the right tooling for your employees. One key ingredient is the tagging as it is the glue that makes the social software stick.

Second make sure you have a flexible and open platform. It ensures that it will be further proof and makes it easier to integrate in your enterprise (collaboration) environment to  enrich the current workplace with social. Together with a full mobile client it will help in the user adoption.

Third: When comparing feature functions, dig deeper then the functional description. I found out that two products had the same applications within the ESS platform, but when looking at the functionality there was a big difference. If possible take a test drive to see how intuitive and how, I know it sounds silly, how the UI looks like.  The first impression lasts forever when the user uses the system for the first time. New applications should always be easier then the existing way of working. Otherwise users will still work the old way. To give an example: one of my customers had the UI made like Facebook: zero phone calls to the help desk. So try how your defined tasks are done and compare how they are done, as you could see in the youtube movie, every platform does it differently.

Third: when you have your specifications look at where you want to run your software, on premises or in the cloud.  Cloud is now a very hot topic for IT, although sometimes things are not allowed (by law) or some functionality is not available. So if the cloud ESS is not delivering your must haves, a private cloud (hosting) might do the trick (e.g. so you can talk about customers and share confidential data).


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