What Enterprise Social Networks can tell us about KM adoption

Many Enterprise Social Network adoptions have stalled. What lessons can we draw for Knowledge Management?

Frustrated woman on computer

Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) technologies such as Yammer, Slack and Facebook for Business are often introduced on the same premise as Knowledge Management – that these technologies will allow staff to share knowledge, collaborate, and discuss work-related issues with each other.

However there is much evidence to suggest that adoption of these technologies is often far from the success it was planned to be. For example –

A 2014 article in Sloane Management Review, entitled “they build it, but employees aren’t coming” says   

“Are companies that have made headway in introducing a social collaboration platform into their enterprise having success getting employees to participate? According to one recent study, not really. More than half of the companies surveyed said “only 10-20% of their employees are actively involved”.

Also a more recent study quoted here

“According to Harvard Business Review, organizations with Enterprise Social Networks report only 20-25% of employees are using the platform with any regularity”.

A 2017 survey by APQC, quoted here, reports that 

“When asked how they prefer to innovate and solve problems at work, fewer than 7% listed communities or enterprise social networks among their top three modes of collaboration”.

A Gatehouse survey quoted here:

At a broad level, only 43% of respondents who introduced social channels consider their adoption rate at either good or excellent, with 52% responding that they struggle to demonstrate their value to the organization. Not great indicators for ESNs.

A 2017 Adobe survey, quoted here, reports that 

“Enterprise social networks are supposed to reinvent how work gets done and employees collaborate, but just 1 percent of workers consider the tools a preferred way to communicate …. email remains the dominant form of work communication (and) …  there has been a surge in face-to-face communication as a preferred way to communicate”

And according to this report, even when you have have an enterprise social network, 

“An average of 7% of network participants are responsible for 50% of connections”


So in summary, even when ESNs are introduced, more than half of companies rate adoption as “less than good”, uptake may struggle to exceed 20% or so of employees, and 7% of those engaged (in other words, 1.4% of employees) are doing much of the work. 

This is a long way from the vision of ESNs providing free and open exchange of knowledge across the whole organisation.

Why are ESNs failing to catch on?

There are some clues in the articles quoted above for why adoption rates have been poor. For example from here

“Enterprise social platforms tend to focus on social communication without paying sufficient attention to solving business process problems that will help users get their work done. Benefits like cross-business-unit and cross-border collaboration that are part of the enterprise social raison d’être may be critical to the organization, but they aren’t likely to spark employee enthusiasm because they don’t have obvious immediate value to users themselves”


from here:

“What really struck me was the way the ESNs appear to have been launched in the organizations – poorly. The survey reported that there was a lack of clear purpose for ESNs, and in many organizations the ESN had been launched not by IC but by IT with no clarity of purpose around how they would fit into existing channel strategies, how they should be used, what success looks like etc”

A Dachis survey in 2012 showed that 75% of ESN engagements were run (or actively influenced by) the IT department, and only 16% by Knowledge Management, suggesting that technology was seen as the primary enabler, rather than as part of a KM solution..

So it is quite likely that most ESN implementations are, in effect, “Technology Push” – rolling out a technology platform and hoping for adoption.

In cases of technology push there will be adoption, but only by a small subset of the population. A while ago, I blogged about the demographics of KM support, and I asserted that

Only about one in five people instinctively “get” KM. Only about 20% of staff are supporters of the idea from the beginning. When you talk to a room full of people about KM, the “KM Light Bulb” will switch on over the heads of about a fifth of your audience. 

I would say that the results above support this assertion. 


20% of people are naturally KM enthusiasts, and will naturally flock to a new platform. The rest won’t. So a platform rolled out in the hope that “they will come” will reach that 20%. And if you focus your attention only on that 20%, you are preaching to the choir. Technology push alone will  will rarely break the 20% adoption barrier and move beyond the “early adopters”. The KM fans will create a KM bubble, but you won’t penetrate the rest of the organisation, so 80% of the knowledge remains untapped and unmanaged.

What are the lessons for Knowledge Management implementation?

I think there are a lot of lessons for KM implementation. Here are 4 obvious ones.

  • Don’t introduce Knowledge Management through technology push alone. The history of KM is littered with failed implementations driven by technology push, and ESN is only the latest in a long line. Identify the business purpose and the value to the business and to the user, identify the pilots, create the business pull

“There is certainly a place for enterprise social, but not as a standalone tool. That would be as useless as having a smartphone without email or other apps. Put social together with a solution that solves a business process problem, and the resulting tool may take off faster than you can say “viral.”

“Once a problem solving purpose is acknowledged, we have a path to true value creation. Tim Baker and Aubrey Warren in their book “Conversations at Work: Promoting a Culture “of Conversation in the Changing Workplace” identify conversations without questions being simply statements passing back and forth with no result. “Questions add the vital ingredients of reflection, investigation, and integration”; all of which are required to solve important business problems”. 

  • Move beyond the 20% of early adopters. To bring in the remaining 80%, you need to embed KM into the work process, and to bring in the 4 incentives I mention in this blog post, because once you are past the 20%, the rest won’t come until you lead them, cajole them, and ultimately require them to come. 



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