This content is part of the Essential Guide: What makes enterprise unified communications work

Buying social software won't give you a social networking strategy

Enterprise social software spending is increasing, but business needs a social networking strategy to ensure employees use the technology.

Enterprises know their employees' communication and collaboration habits are changing. Social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have led many users to favor more contextual-based communications and collaboration instead of email. Although vendors offer enterprise-grade social software such as Microsoft Lync and Cisco's WebEx Social, enterprises need a social networking strategy before they start spending.

Businesses can't simply purchase and roll out a social platform without a plan. They need to help their users get the most out of their social tools and achieve a greater return on investment. "[Businesses] can't just plug in social tools and hope for the best -- the level of success will go down dramatically if the business doesn't take the deployment seriously from the top down," said Brad Shimmin, principal analyst at Washington, D.C.-based Current Analysis Inc.

Social networking critical to business

About 57% of companies are increasing social software spending, but only 18% of those businesses have a dedicated social planning team or social networking strategy in place, according to recent research from Mokena, Ill.-based Nemertes Research Group Inc. Enterprises are failing to align their spending with such a strategy because business units -- not IT decision makers or a social strategy team -- are buying technology, said Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes. "We are seeing a lot of different social initiatives within different parts of the company. Sales employees buying licenses for Chatter for Salesforce, while other businesses units are buying Jive licenses," he said. "Most companies do not have an enterprise-wide social strategy."

Spending often predates strategy because developing a strategy isn't something that happens overnight. TransforMED, a Leawood, Kan.-based health care consulting firm, wanted to give the physicians it serves a "do-it-yourself" platform for communicating and collaborating that would be secure but still allow for ad-hoc conversations. The firm selected Igloo Software for the creation of a "Facebook for doctors," a social networking application for its primary care physicians. It also decided to deploy the technology on its own corporate intranet with embedded social capabilities for its employees, said Nathan Bieck, TransforMED's marketing and communications manager.

"Outside of knowing that our clients [the physicians] wanted to have a place where they could collaborate and get work done on their social network, we didn't have our own strategy [for] how the internal intranet would engage our employees more," Bieck said. The firm was instructing its health care practices and physicians on how to log in and collaborate on the new social platform, and felt that a similar social networking plan should be in place for its internal employees. "Our goal for the social intranet became getting away from the silos of email," he said.

TransforMED created a group space with Igloo software on its intranet, giving employees more options for private, contextual conversations. But the firm knew that in order to make the social platform a success, user would have to change their work habits. "We are trying to make it a habit for our employees to come into work and log into the social network to see what people are talking about and working on," Bieck said.

Enterprise social platforms can quickly become out of sight, out of mind, however, if the business doesn't encourage its employees on a regular basis to take advantage of the tools, Bieck said. "Unless you continually train and keep [employees] up to speed on the latest and greatest capabilities, it will never become a habit."

Social networking strategy must-haves for the enterprise

While enterprise social software is more readily available and easier to use than ever, companies need to set goals for increased collaboration with social tools, said Jim Lundy, CEO and founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Aragon Research Inc.

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Many enterprise social networking strategies focus on connecting remote workers or global offices to increase collaboration. "Workers know that they may need to talk with a certain employee or group of employees for a project, but can't effectively find expertise through email. Enterprises want to be able to connect the right employees," Lundy said.

Establishing a social media team can help enterprises realize their social networking goals, Nemertes' Lazar said. Businesses should create a social planning group with representatives from the teams responsible for document repository applications and unified communications, as well as security and compliance. The business units using the social networking tools should also be represented, he said. "The key is getting the right planning group together and thinking about it as an enterprise-wide solution," he said.

A social networking strategy can break down the walls between business units and improve company-wide collaboration. Some enterprises succeed with their internal social networking efforts by gradually rolling one department onto the social platform at a time -- for instance, moving all sales contacts into a social network for easy searching, Aragon Research's Lundy said. "Much of the value that comes from social tools is based upon utilization," he said. "Moving business tools like content sharing onto the social network increases its stickiness, and the probability of employees using it every day will go way up."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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