How to grow an Enterprise Social Network? - Part 1

Posted on: June 9, 2014 by Jan Krans

Probably the most important word in the above question is ‘grow’, because that’s what you will be doing when introducing Enterprise Social Network (ESN) technology in your company. It is not about implementing or rolling-out software in a mechanical way, process by process or department by department, use case by use case. Although this works great for enterprise applications like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems, whereby the expected benefits are known upfront, target audience can be specified clearly and the use of the application is limited by the functions of the application itself. Ergo, the application is good to support specific business functions or needs. For example in the case of ERP it’s to streamline structured processes with more or less structured information, while in the case of ECM it’s about structuring unstructured information in more or less structured processes. The nature of those software applications therefore makes it possible to take a deterministic approach when introducing such kind of application. First get the expected benefits in a few processes or departments, before rolling it out to the total targeted employee population, while at the same time get the lessons learned from each subproject you have done to improve the coming subproject implementations.

If an ESN is compared with those typical enterprise applications a substantial distinction will surface. An ESN is not related to a business artifact; it is supporting the ones creating those business artifacts: employees. It doesn’t support a specific business function, process or content lifecycle, although it could, but it really excels in supporting employee interaction, across organization silo’s and time differences. It is a communication and collaboration infrastructure like the telephone and just like the telephone, the true benefits from an ESN will come from the so called ‘network effect’. In the case of the telephone: the more people who own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner, because they can call more people.

Atos - The Network EffectThis law, also known as Metcalfe's law, was also used to explain the value of the fax machine; one fax machine has no value, but with each connection added the greater the value of the fax machine. The fax machine has lost ground to email, which is everybody’s personal ‘fax machine’ and in time nice additional functions where added, like an archive and a calendar.

In Enterprises a telephone evolution has been taking place. Desk telephones are replaced by Unified Communication (UC) applications, which allows employees to make 1 on 1 and conference calls with their PC and as an extra, PC screens can be shared with other participants and instant messaging can be used.

The same that happened to the desk telephone is now happening to email, current technology will be (partially) replaced by a new one, in this case an ESN. When an ESN’s is made available to employees, email will drop, by design, as was the case at Atos (60% reduction in internal email) or unintentionally (21% email reduction).

What do telephones, UC, fax machines, email and ESN’s have in common?

  • They provide an infrastructure for human interaction and they are benefitting from the network effect.
  • The business value of those technologies can’t be orchestrated; the value is depending on the way people will make use of them, because it is not a restricted tool for a specific purpose, but an infrastructure.

What are the consequences for introducing an ESN?

  • An ESN is an infrastructure for human interaction and not an application for a specific business function. Therefore it’s not logical to follow the implementation path for typical enterprise applications like ERP or ECM, because it doesn’t do right to the nature of an ESN.
  • Because an ESN is an infrastructure, not all business benefits can’t be pointed out upfront and put in a business case. The real business value depends on the (guided) creativity of the employees how to get the most out of the provided interaction infrastructure.
  • Take an open attitude to let people participate, you don’t know what they will achieve, their work is not your work, they are the specialist you can only guide.
  • If above statements are taking into account you will not implement, but grow your Enterprise Social Network and making use of the network effect.

Our ESN journey started when Thierry Breton, CEO of Atos, publicly announced our Zero email journey in 2011. Only a lot of people, including us in the beginning, have been distracted between the bullet and the target. Because Zero email is not a target, it was a bullet to set off a transition to a new way of working, replacing email by smarter, more effective and efficient tools, like UC, ECM, ERP and of course an ESN which also should integrate with the enterprise applications mentioned. Why did it sound like a target? Otherwise the bullet would not have been fired. So declaring Zero email was a master move to force people to think and act differently and on the other hand it provided the opportunity to experiment with new communication and collaborative behavior without risk. So if you are on a journey to implement an ESN, make sure you have sponsorship from the top, a trigger to get movement, a good enough budget and the freedom to experiment.

Let’s return to the initial question: how to introduce an ESN in your organization? An ESN supports human interaction. So at the start, it is all about people, so the ones you are inviting have to be selected carefully, because in the beginning the perceived value of the new interaction infrastructure provided by the ESN will be low, because there are not yet a lot of people participating (network effect). So the right people first, process and content will follow later.

Find the employees in your company who are well connected, networked, have a very positive attitude to new ways of working, social technology and a growth mindset. These are the people who can grow the network, within Atos we invited those business technologists into the ESN project as Community and/or Collaboration Support Professionals (CSP’s). Together we started experimenting, to answer the question: how could all the different functionalities offered by the ESN deliver tangible business benefits?

After sharing and testing the findings with the CSP group, the next phase is to define and document the first use cases, or better generic communication and collaboration patterns and how these patterns could be of benefit for a group of employees working together to reach a certain business goal. After figuring it out the CSP’s invited new members to the platform, whereby the first ones were leaders or influencers of a specific business activity. Those selected were assisted by a CSP who explained the generic patterns and together they craft more specific patterns, the starting point for a new way of working for a certain business community. Hence the business leader or influencer was not alone in the process; he already involved a few team members and thereby created his community leadership team.

As a result, selected employees have become a community leader themselves and ready to invite new team members to start their new way of working journey. These fresh members still guided by their community leader into the new experience. After a while, the new members can apply for new collaboration space/communities themselves or suggest new members. In this way you grow the network by guiding, a sort of loosely managing viral spread, with minimal restrictions, just a few guidelines like:

  • What is the purpose of the community
  • Who will be the community leadership team
  • As a community management team you are responsible to guide your members into a new way of working
  • what are the keywords or tags of your community (this will help to manage the total community landscape)

One of the most important things when growing your Enterprise Social Network is to keep communities and members connected. To give some expression what happens after launching an ESN take a look at this video, this is an actually representation of the growth of an ESN within Atos in 2012.



Growing an ESN is like architecting a garden, it is holistic, first you have to prepare the soil, then you plant the seeds and water them to make them grow. How to make them grow will be the topic of the next post, but here is already one give away: you can’t pull the grass to make it grow faster.

Picture: “Growing” by Boyan Syarov. Licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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About Jan Krans
Director Enterprise Collaboration, Social Collaboration & Knowledge Sharing and member of the Scientific Community
Jan Krans is Group Director Enterprise Collaboration, Social Collaboration & Knowledge Sharing, a member of the Scientific Community and a Lecturer at The Hague University. Jan is specialized in new ways of working in combination with social business and he likes to surf. Not only the web, but also waves and wind, to get a clear mind and to be connected to nature’s forces. Do you want to be in contact? Just send a tweet to @Vivjan or drop a line at

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