Photo by Indi Samarajiva

ESNs are now part of the furniture

A basic form of social business collaboration is now an expected feature of the modern workplace, at least in terms of the prevalence of ESN platforms like IBM Connections, Jive and Sharepoint, or chat apps like Slack and Yammer. Social networking and knowledge sharing in the enterprise has brought real improvements to internal communications and employee engagement, but in many cases it remains too unconnected to everyday working practices and processes to really change the way in which work gets done. To achieve this, and take enterprise collaboration to the next level, organisations need to integrate social business collaboration more closely with day-to-day working practices and other enterprise systems.

Where an organisation implements an ESN before it begins to reform out-of-date working practices or bureaucratic structures, the resulting social networks can play an important role in helping people work around broken processes or otherwise find creative solutions to organisational problems. But this comes at a cost for those generous enough to help others, as HBR noted recently, finding that over 30% of value-added collaboration comes from just 3-5% of employees, who might be at risk of collaboration burn-out.

Even where the current use of ESNs remains focused on communications and engagement, there is a need for more purposeful use cases to create reasons for people to participate, and organisational transformation is one area where the ESN could play a vital role.

A Nerve Centre for Digital Transformation?

The gradual niggling worry among business leaders that their organisational structures are holding them back has grown into a full-scale lightbulb moment that bureaucratic ways of working are now a bigger threat to performance and competitiveness than external market changes. Executives realise that their internal orientation risks leaving them blind to new threats and opportunities, especially as they relate to emerging competition from startups. The term Digital Transformation has become a broad label for changes in the way organisations work in response to the challenges of digitisation, and whilst many of these changes are about embracing new technologies, we must not forget the equally important task of making our organisational structures and work practices fit for purpose in the digital age. If we want to turn our businesses into platforms, we need to begin operating as a platform internally, and if we want to sell connected products, we need first to operate as a connected company. This is where ESNs can really help.

In my view, one of the key questions for 2016 is this:

how can we extend social collaboration beyond communications and towards becoming the backbone of a new organisational operating system that can solve the structural problems currently keeping executives awake at night?

Plenty of new theories and organisational models have emerged in the past few years that can help create a picture of a future operating model, structure or way of working, but rather than pick a whole system (for example Holacracy or Kotter’s Dual Organisation) off the shelf, I expect smart firms to mix and match techniques from different approaches to suit their particular needs. This is why we opened up our own knowledgebase at Shiftbase.net late last year to highlight the specific management techniques that make up the new models. But the priority is not picking a model and shoe-horning the organisation into it, it is rather about creating organisational self-awareness about what is working and what isn’t and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

That is where we see the most powerful use cases for ESN adoption emerging. Social platforms provide a ready-made ‘human sensor network’ that can tell the organisation what needs to change in terms of structure and practice, and then enable discussion on small tweaks or changes to track their effects. Traditional consultant-led, top-down change programmes are not the way we do Digital Transformation, and real transformation needs to be ongoing, iterative and local, so the ESN is a perfect tool to track it and to share what works. Also, by empowering employees to play an active role in the process, organisations can expect to develop a more purposeful collaboration culture that will generate benefits elsewhere.

Rebuilding the Aircraft During Flight

The really difficult part of Digital Transformation is not theories and models, but how to craft a transition strategy that can gradually transform a traditionally-organised business into something more agile, responsive and platform-based without impacting on performance – rebuilding the aircraft during flight, so to speak. Whereas many companies began with stand-alone innovation projects, labs or incubators, those that are serious about transformation are now focussing on the big picture of the organisation as a whole, and involving everybody in the process.

This is not your traditional change programme by any means, nor is it something the strategy houses can do for you. It needs to be internally-owned and centred and it is best achieved through influence, not diktat, starting with a strong internal network of change agents who are ready and willing to work smarter and try new approaches. But even then, companies will find that existing processes – such as budgeting, planning and employee appraisal – will need to be reformed or worked around, and many will need to shift from a shared services model to an internal platform model. That will not be easy. Rather than try to boil the ocean and transform the whole organisation at once, we expect to see firms provide platforms and toolkits so that individual teams can take the initiative and organise in a way that suits them, but is more agile and externally-oriented.

Starting a Conversation About What Needs to Change

An ESN or other social platform can play an important role in orchestrating this bottom-up transformation process, and provide useful data about the real shape of the organisation and how people get work done. But at its simplest, it can also be used at every level of the organisation to encourage an ongoing conversation with the business about the need to change, and to track the results of those changes, by asking:

  • What capabilities is your team or department missing in order to work in a more connected, agile way?
  • What current processes or procedures stand in the way of this?
  • What small tweaks, techniques or changes to the operating model are helping you get work done, and how are these improving the connected capabilities we are trying to develop?

With a connected workforce encouraged to tweak and improve their own ways of working within their teams and business units, we have the potential to create more sentient, self-aware organisations that can use the power of evolutionary improvement to keep organisational structures and practices aligned with the mission and goals of the firm as it charts a course through increasingly volatile waters.

That, for me, promises a higher purpose for social collaboration, and a more strategic role for the ESN. This week at the IBM Connect event in Orlando, colleagues from Bosch will be talking about how they are doing just that by using their own very active Bosch Connect platform as a platform for digital transformation – don’t miss it if you are there.

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