Beware the social sprawl: How to consolidate your company's communities

18th Mar 2013

Online communities are the most popular social initiative for 2013 according to new research. But Michael Fauscette warns that networks can get out of hand.

The consumer world of social media is fickle, with projects often garnering a huge amount of hype before being replaced by the next big thing - who remembers Ping or Friendster?

And for businesses, the same is true in the competitive arena of social software as they switch subscriptions, chasing the next hot social tool that promises to deliver more effective collaboration than the last.

Each year, analyst house IDC conducts a social business survey to examine the latest hot topic in the space. Whilst the trend of enterprise social network adoption has continued to progress steadily since the launch of the first survey in 2009, there is one area that has continued to evolve: social initiatives.

The same question is put to the respondents year-on-year: ‘What specific initiatives are you planning to conduct using social software for business purposes in the next 12 months?’

Number one priority

And in 2013, IDC found that online communities – be that customer, employee, partners and suppliers – has claimed the top spot. IDC analyst Michael Fauscette told that he wasn’t surprised by the survey findings: “A lot of companies we talk to are in the process of looking at it and doing something with communities.

“There’s a lot of value in the use of communities, particularly on the side with customer interaction,” he explains. “The idea that companies can build customer communities that can then be used for peer-to-peer support, which is of high value for the customer. It gets them really engaged with the company and helps the company either because it reduces the call volume into their customer support organisations or it changes the tenure of that so their customer agents can focus on more difficult problems.”

Fauscette explains that marketing departments can then retrieve valuable insight from these communities that can then be used to understand needs and target products more intelligently. Using customer feedback as a source of inspiration for new products and services, within innovation management, also adds value for companies.

IDC has already worked with a roster of big name clients to implement co-creation and idea sourcing through communities. Starbucks rolled out the My Starbucks Ideas website where it crowdsourced ideas from customers and employees about how to refine products and improve the customer experience through polls and comments. Dell has also been using an idea portal app for a while that enables customers to share ideas that are then taken back into the company, put into Dell’s own processes and evaluated.

So what’s driving this trend towards communities and co-creation? Fauscette believes that it’s due to the maturity of using these social tools in business and finding value. He explains: “When we first started to look at this, we saw a lot of companies using social media as a marketing tool to push their message out into different channels via their marketing and PR departments. Then over time, it grew into initiatives, which evolved into the social CRM space on the outside and the enterprise 2.0 movement on the inside of the companies, and these all started to come together.

“Things like knowledge sharing and getting the right resource to solve the right problem, as well as collaborative work, changed how employees worked and then it moved to this higher level of integration across everything.

“Last summer the survey talked a lot about getting information about products and services and collaborating with partners so it started to be about networking and now that communities is on Socustomer communities to the employee communities and the enterprise social network to the partners. So it's based on the maturity of how companies are using these solutions.”

Social maturation

The progression, he explains, is organic. And requires a behavioural and cultural change, rather than relying solely on technology. Businesses must transition into this new way of working, managing and interacting because customers insist on it and employees are looking for it. The next stage of this evolution, which Fauscette believes will begin to happen this year, is integration - the stage where businesses will really start to generate value. And this is going to be crucial.

“There is a phenomenon of multiple enterprise social networks (ESNs) within companies, and we call that 'network sprawl'. Businesses create the networks to try to eliminate silos but when you do so, you create silos instead of a lot of silos. We are going to have to work through that,” he explains.

Many of the present ESNs are available in a free version, meaning there is a very low barrier of entry to bringing them into the company. Because of this, and the grass roots nature of social network experimenting within organisations, it is very common for firms to have more than one enterprise social network - and they probably won't even know it because many networks are in different departments and are not officially approved, run by a small number of employees.

Survey findings demonstrate that whilst 79% of companies in North America have already implemented some form of ESN, 28% reported that they have more than one. But Fauscette believes that in reality, this figure is much higher – big businesses just aren’t aware of how many networks their divisions have subscribed to.

“Some of the tools are free, or at least premium, so you can bring them in very easily. And once it gets to be a project, and you're starting to look at it from a strategic level, you realise that you have several of these and they aren't hooked together because they start in this compartmented way and they grow over time into a need to be integrated across the whole business,” he says.

Consolidation challenges

Fauscette says he has been tracking the concept of social network sprawl over the past year or so, as businesses have increasingly deployed enterprise social networks and as more vendors have started embedding networks and communities into other enterprise software products. This last point is a double-edged sword. Embedding social networking capabilities into other software is a positive trend because at the work process level it encourages employees to adopt and use the technology and encourages collaboration. However, Fauscette also has reservations. Most enterprise software is not easy to integrate, and the unwitting result of this is that the various networks end up operating as silos - precisely the problem that the networks are supposed to solve.

For most businesses, the enterprise social network should be an interconnected set of networks that solve specific business problems. But Fauscette believes that best practice should involve a “social backbone with an overarching ESN to be the connection point for all the other networks”. This could also include communities that exist outside of the organisation, such as customer communities and partner communities. But whatever the make-up of the concept, the important thing is that the business defines its communities and networks and ensures that they are properly integrated to avoid the proliferation of organisational silos.

To solve the consolidation process the best possible chance of success, organisations will need to take into consideration a number of factors. In particular they need to put great thought into how the official ESN is implemented, taking care to involve and educate employees about it. The selection process is also critical – it must meet the needs of the business and the users and it must provide a good user experience. As such, it might be wise to involve employees in the selection process, rather than having the IT team force it upon them.
Even then, there could be difficulties in consolidating on one network – if other tools have a strong hold on some of the users, there could be stubborn resistance from specific employees. As such, there is always the change the even an official effort to consolidate will not really eliminate all of the other networks.
And then of course there is the other source of network sprawl – the networks that are embedded in other systems. Fauscette believes that in some functional areas within the business a case could be made for a specialised network, and it is not unreasonable to expect that some organisations will find use cases for more than one ESN tool - if there are special feature requirements in an embedded network, it could be best for the users to implement it in that business area. But as vendors increasingly embed network functionality in other systems, this is something businesses need to be aware of.

So moving forward, integrating these siloed networks into company culture and then integrating these employee network tools into customer communities will be the main trend this year.

“As you get Voice of the Customer programs with all your employees, you start to tie your partners into it, which are then tied into these other systems and you get more value. It ends up being this whole integrated network into all your workflow. The next maturity stage will see a lot of companies investing heavily in trying to integrate all these things and make them work together,” he concludes. 


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By Rbacal
19th Mar 2013 18:23

 While I feel that peer-to-peer support is great, given companies refuse to pay the costs of providing service and support direct to customers, it's not likely to change, and I tend to go to third party independent communities (not those that are company run), because they work better, imho for my needs.

That said, let's go farther. Here's a basic principle: If you add channels as customer touch points, without allocating MORE resources, overall your customer service will get worse. So supporting on a Blog, in a community, on Facebook, Twitter, Email may seem sensible, but it's not without higher costs.

My advice is pick one or two channels, and push them to phenomenal quality. Companies who provide seamless service on a small number of contact points will win the customer competition. Imagine a company that actually masters email, and responds and solves problems within 20 minutes. It would leave all competitors in the dust, and will NOT need many of the other channels.

For more on this issue, try the articles on customer service and social media here


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