Enterprise Social Network - three main differences

Sunday 23 Oct 2011 Posted by Nicolay Mausz

The main differences between an Enterprise Social Network and an internet service like Facebook, Google+ or Xing

by Nicolay Mausz

In a company environment users are expecting modern web technologies which are similar to well-known web applications. So Enterprise Social Networks which are quite new are getting more and more popular in corporate intranets. In my opinion it will become as important there as Content Management, Wiki or other web based applications. The most interesting feature of a modern Enterprise Social Network is a user interface similar to Facebook which also had been copied by many other competitors. The main components are a publisher at top for sharing new information, a news feed with comment feature, the popular Like button, friend list and more. This user experience has been copied nearly 1:1 in vKontakte, Google+ or Xing networks and also in Enterprise Social Network applications  (www.informationweek.com ).
This leads to the question: what makes the difference in company use? In which aspects should it be different and which features should be the same?
We have got wide experience in this field. First from intranet collaboration projects, then from doing deep research on the user experience of well-known social networks like Facebook and last but not least we have real life experience with our own Enterprise Social Network product in work environments. We came to the conclusion that it would be a big mistake to use just a Facebook clone in intranet because the content is different and the relationships between the users are different as well.

Let's have a look at the differences:

1. Friends and Circles

In all Social Networks in internet the user can invite people to join with a friend add. All content of a user is only shared with a group of people - the so-called friends. This visibility can be limited to a sub group of friends which is called circles in Google+. In another scenario all content will be shown to everyone like in Twitter and people can make a subscription to a content feed of one user which is called follower.
Does this concept of friends make sense in intranet? The clear answer is just no because It will be not accepted in that context by people.  
But what else makes sense? Just have a look a the situation in nearly every company - there are:
more or a less a hierarchy
organizational units like development, sales, managing board etc.
project groups
So this social relationship graph is not mainly  based on friends in company - a big difference.
The technical solution here is a good integration of the company LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) server, to offer some group features as well. Also the end user should have the possibility to publish content to people in his context (a project group for example) and also to filter all content in news feed like „show all information from my boss, from my colleagues etc“. But a follower concept by showing all information makes sense in company as well.

2. Search

A full text search in news feed is one feature which is currently not implemented in some bigger social network like Facebook, Xing or vKontakte. Google added a good full text feature in Google+ after beta launch and Twitter supports is as well. To be honest I am not missing that too much in my daily Facebook life. I think it is because the content is not important enough to look for it later in let's say weeks or months - most status updates are short and comments as well. But it is also strange that Google+ or Facebook doesn't support a free tagging feature - not only for people.  
The situation in company is different: nearly all content is important and so a full text search is one of the most important features as well. I would say an Enterprise Social Network lacking of full text search is like DMS (Document Management System) or a discussion board (forum) without a search engine. Let's have a look at an example: One person  from marketing department is asking a technical question like "Which mass mail service would you recommend for our product newsletter?". Then a discussion could start with people recommending different  software products or services in internet and their features . So let's say after 6 months another person in company is looking for a newsletter service as well and is happy to find that older thread by "newsletter". Also it might be important to offer tagging on that content so in that example tags like "marketing, newsletter" could be added. A tagging feature on comments might be useful as well because in this example the answers might be much more interesting than the question. Also tagging of people from LDAP with email notification is useful for getting users into discussions which might be interesting for them. So a good search in the company people directory has to be integrated as well for finding colleagues (thenextweb.com).

3. Application integration

The integration and compatibility to the existing infrastructure is always important in company software. Some products like a bulletin board are mostly separated installations and not connecting existing databases. This is different in a corporate social network because it offers a more open user interface. Also Facebook has got a good integration in some online databases. The best example is their own image management. So a user can choose in publisher at top not only to make a status update - a photo can be added as well. Also in photo albums comments can be made and this will be shown in news feed as well. These components are interesting for implementation of an interface to a different application or database: the publisher, the comments, the news feed and notifications.
Some examples:
  • In publisher user can select to make an appointment in calendar - a different form will be shown. Also user might start a company workflow like a ordering process. A ticket system  will be filled with a bug. Or information to a client will be added in a CRM. So the publisher might offer   a common user interface for many of the companies application making them more attractive for the employees.
  • All these example above could generate an entry in news feed and can be commented there. Also by doing some changes like adding new content in a CRM or calendar or uploading a picture in media database, writing an article in a CMS or Wiki will be published as an entry in news feed and can be discussed there as well.
  • The comment feature might be added to another application like SAP, a CRM, ticket system and so user can make comments on existing content outside the social network. But these discussion will be shown in news feed as well!
  • The notification feature of social network can help to reduce email traffic. In many companies users are bored about full email inboxes and have to make filters on content. So for example status updates in a running company process are not that important for sending it as email.

The past and the future

In many older articles or products an Enterprise Social Network has been seen as just a classical intranet collaboration tool with separate applications like Wiki, discussion board, employee profiles, microblogging etc. Nowadays Facebook/Google+ clones are getting more popular but are forgetting some corporate features described above. Also some solutions are only available as SAAS (software as a service) which is only useful for very small organizations without the need to integrate a company LDAP or other applications.
In my opinion in the future many big software installations in intranet like a CRM or a DMS might have their own news feed similar to Facebook  just to offer a cool new user interface. This wouldn't lead to an user friendly situation because of several different social networks in company standing side by side and competing to each other. So in future the biggest challenge might be be to have some common accepted interfaces/standard from one big social network to the more specific applications or several social networks which are able to share information to each other.