Being responsive to employees' feedback -- and flexible enough to try out their ideas -- is vital, King adds. "What kills these things is when people bring in their own new ideas for how to make improvements and they get shut down by executives or legal or HR," he says. "Even when you're not sure, give things a chance. It's important not to manage it at an institutional level too closely. Inevitably what happens is that there are bright spots for users that pop up. You need to bring them in and encourage them."
Explain the benefits; don't make more work
Another key to getting employee buy-in, King says, is to clearly explain to users what they can do and gain by using the social network. "Articulate where the value is and share those best practices, such as sales leaders telling how they sell more using Chatter. By doing this, these tools get adopted by others."
Better yet, make social networking integral to other tasks, advises Ethan McCarty, digital and social strategist at IBM. McCarty says all 400,000 global employees use IBM's homebuilt social networking platform, Connections, which is also sold to customers. "You have to make it part of the work as opposed to a separate thing people do," he says. "If it's not integrated and is an additional task, it becomes a burden and hurts productivity."
Help employees get comfortable with it
McCarty says it's also important to make sure that your employees understand what the expected user etiquette will be under the systems you choose. "That understanding needs to be arrived at mutually and collaboratively" so that users feel comfortable posting their comments and profiles, he says.
IBM has developed a system where less technical users can earn "merit badges" as they gain experience and confidence with the capabilities of Connections, McCarty adds. "You have different groups of people who are going to use it differently. It builds confidence with those users. We want to reward them for their success using the system."
What's still needed in enterprise social networks
So is this technology ready for every business to deploy? Not quite, according to some analysts.
To make social networking a must-have tool for enterprises, those capabilities need to be tightly integrated with the critical enterprise applications that drive businesses, says analyst Yarmis. Right now, the data from each are typically in different silos -- "they don't talk with each other yet." Once that kind of integration truly arrives, he says, it will make these kinds of platforms more important and useful for enterprises.
The time to begin planning for such integration is now. "While you're investing in it right now, it will put you ahead of the game when this is important five to 10 years from now," he says.
Jon Reed, an independent enterprise analyst with JonERP.com, agrees that social networking will be critical for enterprises in the future, but he cautions against getting caught up in all of the hype surrounding it at this early time in its development. One big issue, he says, is that social networking vendors haven't yet solved all their products' shortcomings or filled all their customers' needs.
That will happen in the next year or two, he predicts, as vendors bolster their offerings and provide the critical features that business users want, he explains. "I think that vendors are going to be aggressively trying to pursue things in the end that deliver a lot more value" than is available now, Reed says.
"Right now you're just scratching the surface. We're early in that journey. It's not headed to be Facebook for the enterprise. It's going to be something entirely different."
Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter, where his handle is @TechManTalking, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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