Design Considerations For Enterprise Social Networks

Blog Post created by mgotta on Aug 2, 2012

While enterprise social networking has been covered extensively in the media and by IT analyst firms, one of the least discussed aspects of the topic has been the issue of design and the potential impact of design on employee adoption of such tools and applications.  At the June Enterprise 2.0 Boston conference, I presented a session, “Design Considerations For Enterprise Social Networks: Identity, Graphs, Streams & Social Objects”, in hopes of drawing attention to the issue and to spark conversation around design practices. The session did not focus on any particular user interface (UI) technique or product implementation (e.g., e-mail, community site, social collaboration platform, etc.). Instead, the information was presented at a holistic and inter-disciplinary level, covering a collection of related issues:

  • Affordance-centered design
  • Social theory and design
  • Work and personal value
  • Blended user experience
  • Psychology of adoption
  • Enterprise architecture


The list of items whose success or failure in the market can be attributed to good or bad design is long and diverse. We can all point to something in our own personal experience (e.g., cars, fashion, electronics, appliances, online web sites), where design had an impact on our perception, or use, of that product or service. The influence of design permeates our everyday life. Its influence can be so subtle that we may not even be aware of how the purposeful shaping of a product or service experience affects our judgment, or how affordances designed into that experience make certain individual or collective actions possible. 


However, when we shift the conversation to design of business software, the topic can be treated as an oxymoron. It’s not terribly difficult to prove that the experience we have with consumer software is much preferred to the experience we have using business applications (e.g., CRM, ERP). With enterprise software, we tend to focus design practices on the “known requirements” and functional aspects of how work is performed in process, project, or productivity scenarios. We rarely invest in the time, research, and resources needed to understand the organizational, community, and inter-personnel dynamics that create the cultural context for how the work is done. The result? The industry remains in its early days when it comes to designing social environments that accommodate the myriad subtleties that influence how people network with others beyond the narrow confines of a tool or application.

Nonetheless, the industry continues to deploy enterprise social networking tools in hopes that such environments will improve everything from employee productivity and collaboration to business innovation and transformation. And there have been success stories. At the Enterprise 2.0 conference, attendees heard from companies like GE, Nike, and Virgin America shared how they are leveraging an enterprise approach towards social collaboration. Also, speakers in sessions throughout the event frequently identified the need for organizations to invest in change management and adoption practices.

While progress has been made in terms of recognizing the benefits of governance, change management, and adoption practices, we need to take the next step and realize that the value employees’ gain from social networking will also be strongly affected by how well an organization:

  • Leverages an inter-disciplinary research methodology to understand the cultural context of its work environment
  • Applies those findings to its design practices (e.g., user experience, process, information, application, media, technology)
  • Connects enterprise social networking efforts to its enterprise architecture (EA) program
  • Creates feedback loops between related design, HR, employee engagement, governance, and change management activities


The points above summarize the key theme of the presentation. We have focused much of our collaboration strategies on improving the economic production of the enterprise. While social networking augments that endeavor, it also enables us to enhance the cultural production of the organization, which also impacts business performance. Other highlights included:

Leverage affordance-centered design: While there are scenarios where social networking is explicit and directed towards a particular activity or outcome, there are many situations where employee participation is entirely voluntary. While it may not seem necessary to design for interactions that may not occur, or to design for collective interactions to be observable by an unknown audience, it’s important to accommodate open-ended and serendipitous ways for employees to connect.


Link social theory to the business need: Practitioners involved in the design process should have access to varying levels of expertise regarding social theory, methodology, and methods. Research and design practitioners likely need to investigate a range of people and media issues (e.g., identity, networked publics, social capital, media literacies, social network analysis (SNA), participatory cultures), but need to synthesize and express such findings in business terms.


Design for both work and personal value: The old adage, “what’s in it for me,” (WIFM) remains relevant when persuading people to adopt new technology and ways of working triggered through the use of enterprise social networking. While design efforts need to support business objectives, leadership teams need to also invest in practices that improve culture and employee engagement. For instance, people benefit from having informal pathways that allow them to learn new things, tinker with how a job is done, seek out colleagues for advice, shadow experts in their field, or become involved in community endeavors outside their formal job. We also need to think “beyond the screen” regarding how design practices help mediate online and offline social networking that may have little cause-effect association to a specific business task or process.


Plan for blended user experiences: The first wave of social collaboration solutions implemented a destination site for networking and community building (sometimes referred to as a “corporate Facebook”). Today, the focus has shifted towards adding social capabilities to applications and productivity tools, including mobile scenarios. It’s important for strategists to realize that people’s social networks span any single tool, application, or device. Focusing on a single use case scenario to the detriment of others diminishes overall business and employee value.


Think in terms of a “psychology of adoption”: Gamification has gained much media attention lately and is a topic covered in an earlier post. In short, it means the use of game strategy, design techniques, and mechanics to improve user engagement in non-game situations (e.g., business applications). While the focus today is on badges and leader boards, there is a deeper aspect to social networking that warrants consideration. There is a psychology at play (no pun intended) when it comes to the reasons why people connect to each other, cultivate those relationships, and then work to mobilize that network to satisfy a business or personal need. Today, we know little about the underlying rational for how networks are cultivated and mobilized. We need to do more in this area.


Pull it together via Enterprise Architecture (EA): There is no perfect area within business or IT organizations to “own” enterprise social networking. It’s likely that there are multiple champions and that some type of governance model is needed. However, one group that can be positioned at least as a coordination point to ensure design, media, and technology efforts are aligned, is the EA team. Enterprise social networking includes a range of architectural issues (e.g., profiles, social graph, activity streams, social objects, and social analytics). There are also new roles to consider for inclusion within EA teams (e.g., the “social scientist”). EA can provide a critical foundation for design groups to channel their business and organizational insights. EA programs can help facilitate an inter-disciplinary community around social networking topics.


The presentation can be found on Slideshare. Supporting references (e.g., literature review, annotated bibliography) are included at the end of the deck.


Design Considerations For Enterprise Social Networks: Identity, Graphs, Streams & Social Objects from Mike Gotta