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.