In a great IT industry irony, ESN (enterprise social networking) software, designed to boost interaction and collaboration, is often ignored by users and ends up forgotten like the proverbial ghost town with rolling tumbleweeds.
The promise of a successful ESN deployment is appealing to businesses: implement a Facebook- and Twitter-like system for your workplace, with employee profiles, activity streams, document sharing, groups, discussion forums and microblogging, and watch employee collaboration bloom.
IT and business managers envision staffers using the ESN suite for brainstorming ideas, answering each other's questions, discovering colleagues with valuable expertise, co-editing marketing materials, sharing sales leads and collaborating on a new product design.
ESN software is also often billed as the cure for moribund intranets that employees rarely visit, and for stagnant extranets that fail to attract customers and partners.
Implemented properly, ESN can be beneficial, analysts say.
"It's great for breaking down geographical barriers and harnessing collective action," said Rob Koplowitz, a Forrester Research analyst. "Their value can be astronomical."
The siren song of ESN is hard to resist. Spending on this type of software is expected to grow from $4.77 billion this year to $8.14 billion in 2019, according to MarketsandMarkets.
Yet, many companies struggle to achieve the level of user adoption and engagement for ESN suites that's necessary for them to be effective.
"It's still a challenge, and will be for a while," Koplowitz said. "It's going to be a long journey."
Carol Rozwell, a Gartner analyst, estimates that between 70 percent and 80 percent of companies she talks to about their ESN deployments are struggling with it.
"Too often we see companies whose leaders are thrilled with the technology, and they see how quickly consumer social networks like Facebook have grown. They think they'll accomplish the same growth rate and participation if they purchase the right tool," she said. "That approach doesn't work."
Gartner predicts that through 2015, 80 percent of social business efforts will not achieve their intended benefits due to inadequate leadership and an overemphasis on technology, she said.
Charlene Li, an Altimeter Group analyst, shares a similar view. "It's not a situation where if you build it, they will come. That's not how it works at all," she said. "Adoption definitely continues to be a problem."
The pitfalls are plentiful and not altogether obvious. Employees may resist having to spend time monitoring and tending to another "inbox" of sorts, when they are barely able to keep email under control. Some may not feel comfortable publishing their thoughts and opinions via blogs and comments on forums. Others may not see any value in using the software.
The experts say that there has to be a business goal behind the implementation of an ESN suite, and that this has to be made explicitly clear to the end users, who must see how the software can help them do their job better.
It's also important to provide proper training to show employees how they can switch some -- or many -- email and IM interactions over to the ESN software, and be more productive and efficient. It's also key for managers and top company executives to endorse the use of the ESN software and lead by example through their own participation.
Experts also say it helps when the ESN software is integrated at a technology level with the other tools employees use on a daily basis to do their jobs, whether its their email and calendaring client, their CRM and ERP suites or their office productivity applications.
All that can be done in a way that works as intended. GE, which has made use of many of these best practices when rolling out ESN software in recent years, achieved success where other companies have stumbled.
GE has a primary ESN suite that's available to all 300,000 employees globally and that's known internally as GE Colab, and it has other ESN tools in place for specific teams and departments.
The adoption of ESN software is part of a broader push within GE to leverage cloud computing products to simplify employee access to information and help them work more effectively. It includes the recent decision to make the Box cloud storage and file-sharing service available to all employees.
The GE Colab system, in place since late 2012, gets very strong usage.
"Hundreds of communities have popped up on Colab," said Andrew Markowitz, the company's global director of digital strategy. "It's very actively used. There are strong metrics around it."
It has gotten so far about 50 million page views. Several hundred thousand comments have been posted to it. Users spend an average of 10 minutes on GE Colab per visit. "There is good, strong appetite for this type of tool," he said.
GE Colab, based on a commercial ESN suite Markowitz declined to identify, acts as the typical ESN: It's an intranet for information dissemination and lets employees create profiles, follow each other's posts via activity streams, host and share documents, brainstorm, track down experts, interact in forums and groups and the like.
In one of many similar examples, GE search marketing experts dispersed across the company have found each other and come together via Colab to share ideas and tips about their job.
"In a company like GE with 300,000 people, connecting those islands is a big deal," he said.
A key for its success is that it wasn't a solution looking for a problem, but rather the opposite. GE wanted to make information more easily accessible to its massive workforce, and from the start encouraged employees to use Colab, telling them it would be a tool where they would find valuable content and interactions that would help them with their work.
"To everyone's credit, they saw the value, and started using it organically," he said.
GE also uses other ESN tools successfully in narrower scenarios. For example, the company uses Salesforce.com's cloud CRM software extensively, and its Chatter ESN tool along with it. It also uses Jive Software's ESN suite for a healthcare extranet.
A key is to have a "purpose-driven" ESN, according to Altimeter's Li. "Successful programs have clear prescriptions on how the ESN should be used and why," she said. They're also clear on the specific problems the ESN is meant to help solve, whether it's to make it easier for employees to find experts among their colleagues or to reduce the reliance on email for communications, she said.
"Many ESNs aren't living up to their full potential because they've been implemented as a technology and not as a business strategy," Li said.
Gartner's Rozwell stresses that there needs to be "a compelling purpose for which the tool will be used."
Compelling in this context means not only that the software has to be enticing, but that it also helps people get their job done better, whether that means faster, easier, more efficiently or less expensively, she said.
"The key there is that it's got to help me get my real work done," Rozwell said.
Companies that seek her advice sometimes complain that, for example, they can't get their employees to blog, without having asked themselves first whether blogging will be helpful to those staffers or relevant to their jobs.
The participation of managers, informal team leaders and top level executives is also crucial, because average workers will take their cue from them.
"That demonstrates the fact that this is a real set of tools for everyone," she said. "The leaders have to model the behavior they want others to mirror."
And once people start dipping their toes in the water, managers have to be there validating their efforts, by acknowledging their participation with gratitude.
"You're trying to start up new behaviors, so when people take these new steps and do what you want them to do, it's going to be uncomfortable for them at first, so reinforce their actions," Rozwell said.
For Alan Lepofsky, a Constellation Research analyst, the meshing of ESNs with business processes is essential. "If an ESN is not integrated with tools like file-sharing, CRM, marketing automation, support tracking or project management, then it becomes just another tool, and that is where adoption issues begin," he said via email.
Organizations need to ensure that ESNs are woven deeply in to their core business processes in areas such as sales, marketing and engineering, according to Lepofsky.
All of this means that setting up an ESN that enjoys robust engagement among users takes planning, vision and effort, especially because by definition it involves a change in how people work, according to Forrester's Koplowitz.
"It's not easy. It's a tough road, much tougher than we anticipated, but the payoff is very high," Koplowitz said. "Successful companies have worked hard at it, or they've had help. They're starting to give us the blueprint now how to do this effectively."
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.