Can Ethnography Save Enterprise Social Networking?

Editor’s note: Enterprise software systems. Sounds a bit boring and inhuman. But they’re not! 

This month, Mike Gotta from Cisco Systems, makes the case for bringing the human back into enterprise software design and development, starting out with enterprise social networking (ESN).

ESN is like Facebook, but just for people who work within a company. But why are businesses investing in ESN when white collar workers are already using Facebook, Google+, or Twitter? Because existing social networks don’t fulfill enterprise needs for security, compliance, and integration with existing systems.  Employees don’t just time-in and time-out, they socialize. And companies want to make the most out of their employees’ social networks whether it’s making it easier for workers to find like-minded colleagues or identifying potential leaders or even locating expertise. Because here’s the thing that most companies really get – people do better work when they feel they have the social support to accomplish their task. 

Small companies might turn to an out-of-box ESN like Salesforce (Chatter), while larger companies buy an ESN platform and then customize it to fit their needs.  But one of the biggest problems with ESN’s right now is that developers and trainers don’t account for culture. Often times ESNs are implemented with little understanding of the company’s social and tech context. For example, companies try to incentivize employees to fill out social profiles, or blog, or join communities, but often employees don’t understand why, or what’s in it for them to change their behavior to collaborate in such a public way. The result – slow adoption of the ESN. Can better design practices solve the problem? How can ethnographers help fill the context and cultural gap?

One company that has been active in the ESN space from the user’s perspective is Cisco. Recently,  Cisco’s collaboration blog featured an essay by Mike Gotta, Design Considerations For Enterprise Social Networks.  We asked Mike to guest blog and he wrote a new introduction for Ethnography Matter readers, explaining why ethnographers are needed for ESN development. 

Mike is currently a senior technology solution manager at Cisco focusing on social software.  Like a true social scientist, Mike says that he’s “fascinated by the non-technological issues related to identity, media literacy, and participatory cultures and their influence on how people learn, share, and collaborate.”  You can follow him on twitter, @MikeGotta.

Mike is also looking for an ethnographer who has experience in social networking and enterprise software design to sit on an upcoming panel in November at the E2.0 conference in San Francisco. Get in touch with him if you know of someone or if you are the right person! 

– Tricia

Check out  past guest bloggers. Ethnography Matters is always lining up guest contributors, we would love to feature your work! Send us an email! 


First, I’d like to thank Tricia for reaching out and asking me to provide a guest post. Coincidentally, I have been reading Ethnography Matters for a few months now and have become a fan of its content and contributors so I’m happy to participate.

So why am I here? Cisco has become active in the enterprise collaboration and social software markets for the past couple of years with a product called WebEx Social. Several weeks ago, I posted an article on enterprise social networking to our Cisco Collaboration blog. The goal of the article was to summarize a session presented at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston this past June. The second objective was to spark a conversation on the need for companies to invest in qualitative research related to social networks, integrate those practices into design programs, and apply those findings to improve the effectiveness of enterprise social networking (ESN) systems.

For purposes of this article, an ESN represents a technology platform deployed on a corporate intranet that contains profiles, a social graph of colleagues, an activity stream, and other features similar to consumer sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. The term social network site could also be used to describe an ESN.

How We Got Here

You might wonder why approaches like ethnography might suddenly be very relevant to business and IT decision makers. If you look at industry trends such as “Enterprise 2.0” and “Social Business”, you’ll discover that organizations have been deploying ESN’s for a variety of reasons:

  • Improve employee productivity
  • Discover new sources of talent
  • Build community among employees (shared interests, practices)
  • Locate expertise anywhere in the company
  • Onboard of new employees more quickly
  • Increase innovation levels through “ideation” communities
  • Shorten the time it takes to handle exceptions to business processes

However, for companies to reap benefits from an ESN it has to be used and the industry has struggled with persuading employees to change their work behaviors and use the new environment in a purposeful way. After an ESN is deployed, the most frequent question asked by management and project champions is often, “how do drive user adoption?” As much as the industry talks about how an ESN improves how people work together, it’s not uncommon to discover that e-mail is still the dominant collaboration tool in corporate environments.

To address adoption issues, strategists often talk about the need to implement change management programs alongside ESN projects to “drive adoption” and address related cultural issues.

While change management programs will help, I don’t believe they address the entire issue. Unfortunately, we’re using the term “driving adoption” as a catch phrase to describe the need to focus on persuading employees to improve the way they connect, share, and collaborate, but we don’t have a baseline understanding as to why such difficulties exist in the first place, or why behavior change is so difficult.

Starting Again From The Beginning

In my experience, which includes 14 years as an IT industry analyst researching and advising organizations on collaboration and social networking technologies, and 15 years in the IT organization of a large company, we need to do a much better job at understanding the cultural context in which people work and how “work” fits into a broader social context (including external influences people bring to work).

In regards to the topic of the blog post and presentation, what’s been missing has been a conversation on:

  • How design influences social networking behaviors of employees
  • How qualitative research can improve enterprise design practices
  • How IT organizations apply those insights to improve enterprise architecture efforts and use of social networking applications

Re-thinking the design process for enterprise social networking would seem to be a reasonable idea. Typically, when vendors or organizations design business software, the design scope emphasizes the functional requirements of individuals performing a role, the end-to-end accomplishment of a particular process or project activity, or to satisfy an individual’s personal productivity need. The scope of the effort often begins and ends with the user interface of that application or web site.

However, if we were to examine social networks from a broader design perspective, we’d realize that relationships: span applications and intranet web sites, exist offline as well as online, and can be of value to people for reasons not clearly tied to the functionality of the application or web page someone is accessing at the moment.

In other words, applications and web pages provide a narrow view into people’s social networks – not unimportant in the sense of what the application or page represents, but limited when we try to extend those experiences via an ESN. Moving beyond functional business requirements to include insight on relationships and cultures allows us to design more effective affordances for people to network with one another.

Connecting Design To Enterprise Architecture

The blog post that caught Tricia’s interest, Design Considerations For Enterprise Social Networking, was a summary of a presentation delivered at the E2: Social conference. Below are some of that post’s key points:

Affordance-centered design: 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.

Social theory and design: While research and design practitioners investigate a range of people and media issues they also need to synthesize and express such findings in business terms.

Work and personal value: We 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.

Blended user experience: It’s important for strategists to realize that people’s social networks span any single tool, application, or device.

Psychology of adoption: There is a psychology at play 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.

Enterprise architecture: 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.

At the E2: Social conference, I covered more specific design considerations at a more technical level than those outlined on the Cisco blog. Below are some of the key points in that slide deck (along with a brief description):

Profiles as a social process of identity construction: Today, many strategists view the profile on a social network site simply as a form to be completed by the employee rather than something that reflects a person’s identity at work.

DesignPoint Profiles

Design Consideration: Profiles as identity construction

Social roles compared to the formal roles employees have assigned to them: Many employees self-identify themselves by their title, department, or system that they support. However, they also perform many invisible roles that are not ascribed to them by the company – these “social roles” are worth deciphering as they often lead to interesting informal relationships, communities, and cultural behaviors.

DesignPoint Social Roles

Design Consideration: Recognizing people’s social roles

Network ties and how they are multi-dimensional and contextual to work: There is a lot of hype in the market about social networking. Diagrams produced through social network analysis are often not understood and misapplied. It’s important that we spend more time on understanding networks as a pervasive social structure rather than the type of dualism that exists today where we treat networks as something new and different.

Design Point Social Graph

Design Consideration: People’s connections are contextual

Social objects and activity streams enable people to participate in intended and unintentional ways: Vendors and application developers involved in building systems that leverage activity streams should spend more time to design streams rather than simply treat them as an information source.Right now, the industry is largely copying what’s found in consumer social network sites – which might be perfectly ok, but perhaps not as valuable when delivered in a work context.  The next two slide images show four “things to think about” from a design perspective for social objects and how such objects, when inserted into an activity streams, create affordances for social networking.

Design Point: Social Objects

Design Consideration: Determine how objects in an activity stream might be appropriated

Design Point: Activity Streams

Design activity streams as an affordance for people to connect via social objects

Social analytics as a feedback loop: While the term “big data” has also garnered a lot of media attention, there are benefits from capturing, analyzing, correlating, and re-applying insight gleamed from social data for improving the user experience as well as the design process and its practices.

Profiles, social graphs, activity streams, social objects, and social analytics: These items are important components for enterprise architecture groups involved in a social business or Enterprise 2.0 initiative.

Example ESN Technical Architecture

Example ESN Technical Architecture (Note: The term Enterprise 2.0 (E2.0) is a term coined by Andrew McAfee. “E1.0” refers to pre-existing collaboration tools.

Where Do We Go From Here

If there’s consensus on this point, that qualitative research has value regarding enterprise social networking, then the discussion can shift to how we transform design practices. The conversation allows us to imagine new roles within business and IT groups for practitioners with expertise in ethnography, anthropology, sociology, etc.  These skills can help organizations capture design needs that might not otherwise be found in the functional requirements of an application, web site, or process but nonetheless could be crucial for supporting the social networking needs of employees.

entreprise social network Q&A between employees

Qualitative research offers organizations a viable means for deciphering these dynamics and creates a pathway for their inclusion within design activities. For example, an emerging social application becoming more popular lately is based on some type of enterprise Q&A capability where employees post a question and the enterprise social networking system mediates an answer. These Q&A applications identify the experts, routes the question to an individual or community, and might also suggest people to contact that might be able to help with the question.

That type of scenario is pretty straightforward.

Then again, perhaps not.

While different segments of a global workforce are working together in the same firm, they are also situated in their own cultures and might not find that type of application so easy to use, or participate in. In some contexts, there might be deference to management or senior staff – or the “answer” might be framed as a suggestion – or a desire to work in a community context to reach consensus on the answer. Here in the U.S., we think of expertise location as the opportunity for an individual to excel, or for the firm to discover an untapped source of talent.

That’s not always the case in other parts of the world. A design research approach that looks for those types of nuances could be instrumental in shaping the actual implementation of the function as well as it’s naming. “Expert” might not always be the best way to frame the feature if people perceive it as making them appear to not be qualified, or making responders appear as if they are claiming to be experts when they are simply sharing an experience or idea.

A revamped design process would provide useful contributions to those in the IT organization responsible for enterprise architecture as well. A goal would be to ensure that valuable design capabilities are supported by whatever ESN is being deployed. Feedback loops from analytics captured by the ESN and other sources should iteratively improve upstream research and design efforts.

Over time, the organization is better positioned to address many of the adoption issues currently being talked about in the media. However, we need to realize that right now, the different tribes (e.g., qualitative researchers and IT architects) speak different languages and there is no common point in the organization for these groups to build community. Also, designers with a qualitative research background are rarely in conversation with their counterparts responsible for application and infrastructure decisions. The situation is both a challenge and opportunity.

I realize that this post is somewhat “conceptually perfect” – there are gaps in my reasoning (based on incomplete knowledge of these fields), and obstacles in my approach (recognition of the problem/opportunity within the industry). However, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted to spark a conversation. I encourage you to read the Design Considerations For Enterprise Social Networking blog post, review the presentation, and share your thoughts here on Ethnography Matters.

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