The Promise of Social (The ESN edition)

Let’s take a moment and look at the idealistic, hopeful “promises” (the promise so many still speak of and fight for at least those who haven’t gone “corporate” so to speak) we saw emerge from around 2007 and compare them against the “common reality” we see in many organizations today.


Promise: Organization-wide transparency & openness
Common Reality: Organization-wide monitoring, measuring, judging and manipulating

Promise: B2B and B2C networks
Common Reality: Another sales channel

Promise: Social platforms to make work easier
Common Reality: Social platforms are another layer of work

Promise: Social Leadership
Common Reality: Executive broadcasting

Promise: Online customer communities
Common Reality: Customer service system

Promise: Platform owned by the workforce
Common Reality: Platform owned by IT

Promise: Increased connection for employee community building
Common Reality: Increased connection for expected employee work collaboration

Promise: Make work more human
Common Reality: Make humans work more (always connected is expected)


Of course this is not the truth for all organizations, some are meeting many of the promises but I don’t think that is the norm by a long shot. And this post isn’t meant to be a cry of surrender but rather a call to action. If you see it this way too, we need to be asking – Can we ever reach the true promise of (enterprise) social technology and if so, how?


L&D Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid

Yes, yes I know that many have said L&D shouldn’t be threatened by social and social technology. The argument being that a focus on social can actually improve L&D efforts by extending formal learning impact which is true and many in L&D leadership have made progress… but many more have not and only play lip service to the notion (I know, I’ve lived it). L&D has traditionally argued against social technology on the grounds that people will share the wrong information. But there is another reality and maybe the real truth behind the dismissing. At the end of the day, L&D does just what the executives want, a course. And when numerous employees have taken the course and then do not really perform any better, the blame is more often than not placed on the employees and not the solution.

The reason for this? A fine blend of two ingredients at the management level; the leadership echo chamber and a heaping cup of cognitive dissonance. Systems->Behaviors->Culture.

First, the echo. Executives build inner circles; a cushion of trust that, over time, membership in grants one the benefit of every doubt. The next is cognitive dissonance; the reconciliation of two competing beliefs where placing blame upon the employees is chosen over the idea that monetary investments in technology and “expertise’ was wasted. Both result simply in – It’s got to be them, not us.

“Look at all the work we did.”
“Look at the features and functions we built. You (boss) liked them.”
“You (boss) agreed with them.”
“The employees didn’t invest the time.”
“They chose to ignore the content.”
“They didn’t revisit the material.”
“It’s their fault.”

But the jig is up.

Like we have always known, social technology opens things up. Social technology leads to transparency. Social technology can challenge the status quo. It doesn’t take too many voices openly sharing comments about ineffectiveness to upend the whole game. More often than not though the channel directly to the employees is either too long and narrow, blocked by protective layers of hierarchy, and/or hindered by a culture of complacency. That’s a lot but still L&D, or rather traditional training-centric L&D, should be afraid of social technology, it’s permeating the organization. Once executives understand that social for social’s sake has value (which many vendors have abandoned) it will open the doors to the boardroom to all and change will be swift.

Change the Default (Mind)Settings

I wondered aloud on Twitter last week about the supposed 80% fail rate of ESNs that many publications have reported in recent years. This thought was further spurred on by this CMS Wire article The Smoke and Mirrors of Enterprise Social Networking Metrics. Of course the word “fail” has a connotation that 1. NOBODY is using the platform and/or 2. an expectation (usually of the purse string holding executive) wasn’t met. I tend to think it’s the latter as the tech and maybe even your culture is just fine… your measurement may be wrong.

All enterprise social platforms come with a dashboard of metrics of their own definition. Engagement is typically the golden calf as adoption, measured in things like “likes”, “shares”, “posts”, etc all add up to success of the tool. But is it tool success that drove the desire to have a tool in the first place?? Add in whiz-bang features like badges (eh-hem, stickers) and maybe “sentiment” metrics (which something tells me can’t identify sarcasm) and VIOLA! you have even more to measure. They make it simple. But as we know simple isn’t easy and in this case it isn’t right either. Used in isolation and these metrics are the equivalent of what traditional training measures – butts in seats or “if you attended you must have learned.” A fallacy of course as all it means is one was present and the default metrics for ESN platform are similarly a false prophet.

Frankly, the only measure you can gain from the tool is about the tool. The measures that matter can’t be seen in an ESN dashboard and there are way too many other variables contributing to the outcomes that really matter in the workplace. Social interaction is a key piece however and if a platform is used by some to make them feel a part of something bigger, if it helps a handful of people find innovative solutions, and if it actually helps a team to get work done faster, easier and in the open – well that’s far from a failure.

A few thoughts to help you shift away from the lure of the default settings:

First, an ESN platform certainly helps extend and expand social interaction, but it should never be the measure of “social success”! Second, social is bigger than your business, and it carves it’s own path. If you attempt to channel conversations in the direction of business only, you are in essence sucking the soul out because all conversations in business are the conversations of business. Accept that social is important but it’s not going to be all shop talk and if it were forced to be, the relationships (so critical to organizational health) would disappear… looking much like an ESN failure.

The real failure we hear of is certainly not the technology, it’s also not that your culture isn’t collaborative either. Rather, it’s a failure in expectation and in effectively communicating what social is really about. It’s a failure in not having (or not having the ability to have) the necessary, deeper conversation with leaders that (sorry) aren’t as black and white, and easy as all those default dashboard metrics tout.

Simple Doesn’t Mean Easy

Over that last few months a local workshop for non-profits has been gathering weekly. Around 80 people from various organizations are involved. The hosts invited everyone early on to join Slack to apparently be leveraged between live sessions and carry on the dialog (I say apparently as this was not actually articulated).

After several weeks, 10 people have posted once… each. Three of the 10 were the hosts. It’s a ghost town. Go figure.

This isn’t really about Slack though…but it is. You see, Slack is often chosen because it’s free and it’s supposed to be simple and fun. It’s the gold standard for chat today. Every start-up is running to it – the “email killer”. But that doesn’t make it right for everyone or every situation and simple and fun doesn’t equate to adoption, that my friends is a people issue. But an even bigger problem than this group failing to connect with Slack is that many will walk away blaming the tool.

The reaction by this group is inevitably one of Slack is stupid. And for many that’s it, the social soup is spoiled. Wrong tool, wrong reason (if any reason), poor planning, poor implementation, and poor support. Bolting it on and flicking the switch works for very little with the exception of an electric light. Many will leave this half-baked effort viewing all enterprise social tools and efforts as pointless voids and frustrating time wastes. So next time the opportunity arises, it will likely be met with a “oh yeah, we tried social media. It didn’t work” response, making sincere efforts all the more difficult due to the often impenetrable wall of first impressions.

This is ultimately a failure of expectation, or a failure because there was an expectation that connection, conversation and collaboration are easy because you’ve employed simple technology.  Thanks to all who leap before they look…

Just because the tools are getting simpler to use, more natural, and common place and even with a lot of fun buzz and hype – it doesn’t mean it’s going to “work” out of the box. It is still and always will be people and purpose, trust and not technology that drives the social engine.

Humility is a Bluebird

I read that in sales circles the term bluebird is slang for an opportunity that is unexpected or very profitable. You can’t exactly create a bluebird in this context (sales) I suspect but in others, by doing the unexpected we just might. For example the moment we let are guard down, even just a little, amazing things can happen. Yes, the vultures can swoop in seeing it as weakness but so too can arrive a bluebird of opportunity.

BluebirdMany organizational leaders think trust-building is solely accomplished by being strong and decisive. However a deeper trust forms when people in charge reveal their humanity which is often unexpected. Humanity is humility.

In a past organization I was working for, the leadership was struggling to solve the problem of time recording. In the contract space an organization can only get paid if the records for billable hours are accurate and complete. With most employees working on several projects at once, it was an arduous task to complete time records each day. The early solutions, in place well before I got there, included a system of automated emails sent by the finance department each day. Those late in submitting their time card were sent an ominous note informing you that “you have failed floor check” at 10:00 am each day. However simple, it was doing little to curb the epidemic of delinquency.  The typical approaches were not working as, regardless of the non-compliance, everyone still got paid.

Visibly flustered by the inactivity, the head of finance saw training as the solution. Yet this problem was not due to a lack of skill or knowledge and one operations executive agreed with me. I convinced him instead to post in our new Enterprise Social Network. His post was not to be a demand or a threat but a humble request; in his own words he simply asked for help.  He explained why non-compliance was bad for the organization, the individual and frankly stated he was out of ideas. Within hours the first comments started to appear and due to the inherent nature of social technology followers of followers chimed in seeing that it was safe to do so. Most offered personal tips; approaches and tools they used to remind themselves to complete the task. Others acknowledge these ideas and openly thanked one another.  What eventually appeared however was a criticism of the failed floor check email message itself. One employee even referred to the HR handbook and noted a discrepancy – the email message implied that if you received it, you already missed the opportunity. This was inaccurate, as 12:00 pm was the deadline. The 10:00 am email was meant as a warning but the verbiage led many to take no action since they figured it was too late!  The HR handbook was quickly updated and the email alert corrected. Delinquency declined.

A simple and highly atypical hierarchical communication, one based on humility, led to open dialog, productive criticism and a small unexpected change with financial rewards; a bluebird.