This post offers high-level guidance for organizations looking to acquire and implement a social software solution to facilitate communication and collaboration in a secure environment via a private digital network (e.g., an enterprise 2.0 or social business platform, a social intranet, a digital community). It provides considerations for getting started, selecting a social software product or service, and designing and implementing the private digital network.
A few weeks ago I published Private Social Networks: Why Every Organization Needs Them. The basic premise of the post was that public social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn can help organizations of all types enhance their marketing, public relations, and other external communication efforts, but they are usually not the best choice for facilitating more private interactions. In it I highlighted the risks of using public platforms and described how private social networks (aka private digital networks) can reduce those risks while also enhancing communication and collaboration among organizational stakeholders.
Private social networks are also referred to as enterprise social networks, intranet 2.0s, social intranets, enterprise 2.0 platforms, social business platforms, digital communities, and similar labels. The basic idea behind them is to provide 2.0 or social media functionality within a private or secure environment, using a proprietary platform rather than one of the publicly-available social networks. To better understand how social media can be used internally (and between organizations), check out Part 2 of the Social Media Primer (and its updates).
I prefer to use the term private digital network for several reasons:
- The term "social" can cause a negative reaction among people who think the platform will be too "Facebook-like" and lead people to play rather than work.
- The term "digital" helps reinforce the notion that these networks are about hardware as much as software. Mobile access (e.g., on smartphones and tablets) is an increasingly critical component of their design and effectiveness.
- The terms "enterprise" and "intranet" imply intra-organizational usage only. Private digital networks can include both internal and external stakeholders and can facilitate inter-organizational communication and collaboration as well.
This post extends the analysis and recommendations in the previous post by providing high-level guidance for getting started, selecting a social software product or service, and designing and implementing the private digital network.
As always, questions and comments are welcome. I'm particularly interested in other suggestions of things buyers should look for. Thanks!
- Courtney Shelton Hunt
Determining and Refining Needs
Before pursuing a social solution, organizational leaders should revisit their strategic goals and objectives and identify whether new digital technologies can help achieve them. They should also assess how they are currently leveraging all forms of media and communication, including print, email, and telephone. This assessment should identify the strengths and weaknesses in the various approaches and include a determination of how a private digital network might offer a more efficient and effective approach to communication and collaboration with and among key stakeholders.
It might also make sense to determine the digital sophistication of those stakeholders by assessing their current knowledge and usage, as well as the relative importance they assign to various social software features and their desire to leverage them in the context of organizational activities. Individuals could also be queried about their desire for mobile access, their need for training, their general communication preferences, and any concerns they might have.
Rather than making the decision in isolation or delegating the responsibility to a single staff member or a group of individuals in a single department (e.g., IT), organizational leaders should consider creating a social media committee or task force comprised of a diverse group of individuals, including those with low levels of digital sophistication. This task force can be charged with identifying specific requirements, evaluating the available options, and spearheading design and implementation efforts. Creating a task force will not only increase the likelihood of selecting and implementing the best solution, it can also help promote the benefits of the new tools, get people excited about the new system, and reduce resistance to change.
Hiring an outside consultant to guide the efforts of the task force can be a worthwhile investment. A qualified consultant who has both broad-based technological understanding and a strategic perspective can:
- Help identify/clarify objectives and prioritize them
- Ask questions and raise issues that insiders would not consider
- Provide social media subject matter expertise that insiders lack
- Make a determination about social media's potential value more efficiently and effectively
- Help avoid anchoring effects, break stalemates and facilitate effective group process
Selecting a Solution
Once a group or organization has decided to establish some kind of private digital network, they should pursue a solution that best enables them to achieve their strategic objectives, reflects their core values, and makes the most sense based on individual demographics and current technology usage. The solution should also maximize currently available digital technology to meet their identified requirements and be flexible enough to adapt as technology changes. And of course, it should offer a solid balance between "high tech" and "high touch."
Software vendors are increasingly investing in and offering social platforms and tools, which means that organizations can buy ready-made products rather than creating their own custom solutions, saving themselves both time and money. Here's a small, diverse selection of some of the social software solutions currently available:
This LinkedIn group discussion includes other "out of the box" solutions, as well as some "do it yourself" tools.
In evaluating the available options, organizations should assess the following features relative to their core needs and system requirements:
In addition to evaluating platform features and tools, organizations should also assess:
- Whether the solution is cloud or server based, and if it requires all users to have emails from the same domain
- Technical requirements like bandwidth, and mobile accessibility (i.e., via tablets and smartphones)
- How the platform can be integrated with other organizational systems and applications
- User friendliness and ease of use, including integration of features via a central dashboard, portal or home page
- Sophistication and ease of administration, including customization, security settings and access rights, and analytics
And, of course, they should also evaluate the vendors themselves, by assessing the product websites, demos, and other factors:
- Evaluating product websites:
- How easy is it to navigate?
- Does it accurately reflect the product?
- Are features and functions clearly articulated (feature lists are the best!)?
- Does it provide screen shots and/or short, simple videos demonstrating features and functions?
- Is the pricing transparent?
- Can a prospective buyer research and explore without requiring an initial conversation with a sales representative?
- Evaluating demos:
- If the vendor asks for an organization's specifications in advance, do they target the demo to them?
- Is the presentation customized to the organization's identity?
- Does the sales representative avoid talking about things their system does not do? Is s/he dishonest or misleading about their system's limitations? Does s/he answer questions directly and accurately rather than trying to convert answers to sales pitches?
- Other considerations:
- What kinds of accommodations are they willing to make in terms of customization and price?
- Will they provide a free trial to enable an organization to test their set up and features?
- Do they offer training and support for administrators and users?
- How responsive are they questions?
- How patient are they with decision-making delays?
- What are their plans for upgrades and enhancements?
- Can they provide recommendations from current users?
In conducting their evaluation, organizations should first identify the "deal breaking" criteria - i.e., the critical elements - and use those criteria to do a first-cut elimination. The second cut elimination can be based on a second tier of "must haves." Then, once the pool is narrowed down to a handful of options, it's best to employ a weighted-average approach that recognizes that the elements being evaluated are not equally important.
Design and Implementation
Once a platform has been selected, the organization or task force should develop a plan for designing and implementing their private digital network, keeping members apprised of their progress both before and after the system goes live. The intent should be to introduce changes gradually, but with clear deadlines in mind - particularly for transitioning from traditional communication approaches (e.g., snail mail and phone) to more advanced digital approaches.
In addition to designing the social network itself, the task force must also address administrative and governance issues, including creating a governance board, designating who has responsibility for ongoing maintenance and administration, assigning a community manager(s), creating a user agreement and posting guidelines, and developing a crisis management plan.
To help reduce resistance and maximize engagement, they should provide training for all users, and be prepared to offer extra support and encouragement for less-sophisticated users. They can also promote and reward engagement through activities such as a digital scavenger hunt. If designed and implemented correctly, however, the benefits of the private digital network should be evident fairly quickly, and users at all skill levels should be able to adapt with relative ease. Even the most reluctant users could become enthusiastic adopters!