When do “Enterprise Social Networks” create value for an organization?


In a blog I wrote recently for The Learnscape on empowering employees for continuous learning and organizational growth, I mentioned the rise of online communities or learning eco-systems and their importance to make knowledge flow. (Empowering employees leads to continuous learning, 2013). This blog received a very interesting comment; how do you go from sharing information to using information and how can this flow of knowledge create value for an organization?

Online communities in the workplace are often referred to as Enterprise Social Networks (ESN) and there have been many studies searching for the answers to the question of organizational value. Some research suggests that companies that fully support social engagement are experiencing four times the business impact than less engaged companies.(The Economics of the Socially Engaged Enterprise – Wave 1 – 2012).

Although there are many different types of online communities, ESN are mostly divided in two main categories. The difference between both lies in the intention for starting the community and its ownership, both however create corporate learning through online collaboration and communication.

Communities of Practice

Communities of practice are created in organizations as a vehicle for developing strategic capabilities or initiatives that benefit from co-creation over hierarchical or regional and departmental boundaries. The term community of practice existed even from before social media en the web and Etienne Wenger-Traynor defines it as:

“Groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”

So how can those communities of practice create value for an organization, why are they created and how can we measure their success?

A customers we helped building a community recently announced on his intranet (stage 4) a corporate initiatives around a new service line they wanted to implement. Their “empowered employees”, who used the social intranet commented on the initiative and engaged in the set-up; a community of practice or so called “center of excellence” was born. Ownership of this community was with the initiative holders and first followers and grew organically and 100% voluntary.

Some of the benefits detected:

  • the organization benefited from new insides from to be knowledgeable on the topic.
  • best practices examples from customers of the new service line where shared over regional departments resulting in new ideas to create local customer value
  • because of the voluntary following we saw that some of the rules of a movement applied and those who did not participate became strange outsiders
  • when the new service line was launched after test phase, the adoption in other regions was faster than with previous initiatives as it was a “employees owned” project and not a top down strategic decision
  • new employees recruited on the service line had a much faster onboarding as they became member of the community were they found mentoring from the other members.
  • performance of the new service line employees was measured not only in revenue but also in “capturing and sharing” the success stories for future learning

Similar findings were captured when building communities around customer projects where innovation and understanding was key to deliver results. In this case we invited customers on the platform. We organized online “dream sessions”, shared folders and monitored all communications in the community and forbid regular mails. Marketing, partners, project managers and sales all worked together on the project. What we saw in this “external” community of practice on top of other “internal” projects is improved relationships and smooth transaction from pre-project to after sale. The most important aspect however was that our customer experienced a faster delivery time resulting in better margin and a stronger relationship with all partners involved.

However the best way to explain the value off a good community of practice is in the behaviors of his members or according to Harold Jarche:

“I’ve been told that you know you’re in a real community of practice when it changes your practice. It’s a good measuring stick”

Communities of Learning

A key reason for the success of the previous described projects was the flow of knowledge between all partners involved, this is also one of the main characteristics of a community of learning. The big differences between both types of communities are ownership of the community, initiative holders and belonging. It is this what makes it more difficult to build attractive communities of learning.

So why is it harder to create attractive communities of learning? Learning communities are created as, or are the result of, an initiative mostly taken by L&D. Employees “invited” to the project see this as a mandatory extra task. Measurement of formal training is in many occasions only registration of the task or attendance, after completion employees continue to their daily routine.

Let’s first start to give some examples of online communities of learning, why they are initiated and what their main purpose is.

  • the most common communities are those that are part of Learning Management Systems (LMS) claiming to be social learning environments. What we see here is that mandatory or linear learning curriculums are placed on a social forum, where after completion learners can rate, share or comment on the content.
  • pre-formal learning events, communities can be introduced to introduce learners to each other and to prepare the learners and provide them with pre-learning readings or material
  • during the events backchannels ( David Kelly , 2013) are used to give extra information or pose questions. Those backchannels can be a great source of future learning, as the resources that are shared can be referenced as a continuing source of learning for weeks and months after events end of the initial event.
  • reinforcement and blended learning are hot topics in training and we see most training companies and organizations offering some kind of online learning activities. However most of those tools are not social or community builders but barely mandatory reminders.

I believe it is evident that the impact en success of communities of learning is less easy to measure and that many side factors play a role in their adoption. When taking into account that the voluntary aspect of the community of practice made this to be very effective we need to think of ways to have this trigger effect in learning platforms. So to measure the effect we should be able to build not only appealing learning communities, we are also challenged to make content more socially engaging and measurable.

Investing in voluntary online communities of learning, where contents is co-created, measured and owned by the learners, will play an important role to develop future flows of knowledge.

Engage senior leaders

In many communities of practice, and even communities of learning, we see the benefit of engaging senior leaders and C-level in an ESN. When people actually see leaders responding thoughtfully, engage others in conversations and reward participation by a simple thank you, they feel empowered to become more active. Members of those communities feel more open to share news, best practices and their knowledge independent of hierarchic or departmental barriers.

Culture is king

I have written before about the importance of culture when implementing anything, whether it is a new sales methodology or a coaching initiative. When launching a social strategy this is even more relevant, Mark Fidelman (Socialized, 2013) describes it as:

“A culture where executives make it comfortable
to communicate issues, where employees feel it’s acceptable to fail fast, to share knowledge in hopes of having people improve upon it, where becoming an expert and helping others is encouraged”

In my next blog I will elaborate on how you can use communities of learning in your company and how learning can be fun if you give learners the driver seat. Let me know what you think on this, or give me your concerns and maybe we can make a community of practice on the topic ..

Published by Katja Habit Of Improvement

Lifelong learning and an unstoppable drive for innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. Katja Schipperheijn is a digital learning strategist and internationally recognized consultant and keynote speaker on learning and engagement in the connected world. Her area of expertise focuses on the interaction of people and technology to achieve sustainable growth based on commitment and well-being. She has worked for more than 15 years with tech companies and learning organizations and holds a Master Degree in Economical Science, an Executive MBA from the Antwerp Management School and Digital Learning Strategy from MITSloan

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