Build a private social network that employees will actually use

Company social networks can drive collaboration and innovation -- or they can wither on the vine. These tips can help make yours a success.

social networking

NASA could land humans on the moon and put exploratory rovers on Mars, but in the last three years, the agency just couldn't find a way to build an internal social network that would encourage its employees to collaborate.

Initially launched in early 2009, "SpaceBook" was supposed to be a place where NASA workers could go online anytime to get feedback, learn from others' experiences, collaborate on projects and get to know each other better. But NASA ultimately squashed the effort this June, taking it offline for good.

The problem, says Kevin Jones, a consulting social and organizational strategist with NASA's Marshall and Goddard Spaceflight Centers, was that no one sufficiently explained to users what they could do with SpaceBook to move their collaboration forward. So it languished when users didn't adopt it -- even it was relaunched it with an updated user interface.

That kind of crash-and-burn experience happens in enterprise IT when plans are established without understanding what users want or need. But it doesn't have to be that way for your organization, according to companies that have made internal social networks an integral, thriving part of their employee communications streams. What it takes to make a successful internal social network, they say, is strategic planning, careful follow-through and a willingness to change direction as your users show you how they want to use the tools you're giving them.

We'll share these companies' best tips for getting employees on board with a private social network. But first we'll explore some of the benefits internal social networking can bring.

How organizations are using social networks

Why invest in a company social network in the first place? That's a familiar question for Jonathan Yarmis, principal analyst at The Yarmis Group, which follows social, mobile and cloud technologies.

"Clients ask how can they get value from this and why should they spend money on it when they're not convinced that there is ROI," he says. "But I think it's profoundly important. It allows people to do things with information that they can't do with email. During the course of the day you can ask, 'Who do I know that knows what I need to know?' You can only do this on a social networking platform."

The companies we spoke to have found that their internal social networks provide multiple benefits, including giving employees a stronger voice, helping them pool and share information, and strengthening company culture.

Giving employees a voice

At San Francisco-based, the social media tsunami known as Facebook got company executives very interested in how such a phenomenon would eventually affect enterprises, says Dave King, the company's director of product marketing. That's how the company developed its Chatter employee social networking application.

Unveiled to customers in June 2010, Chatter was first rolled out internally to Salesforce's 8,000 global employees in the months before the product launch. "We used it ourselves before we offered it to anybody else," King says.

Every Salesforce employee has a Chatter profile and can post questions or comments, share information and collaborate from around the world in real time. "People tell us that instead of hitting a bottleneck, they post an inquiry on Chatter and get an answer," he says. And the platform is searchable, so users can pull up past discussions, data and more.

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