How Enterprise Social Platforms Are Disrupting Employee Engagement in 2021: Lessons for CHROs


Even as workforces around the world, across verticals and industries, settle into the new normal of work-from-anywhere and remote teams, the challenge of employee engagement as an organizational imperative for a digital and globally distributed workforce is starting to worry CHROs everywhere.

Keeping employees connected and engaged was a challenge even in the best of times. As this reportOpens a new window from The Engagement Institute tells us, disengaged employees cost US firms upwards of $550 billion annually. With teams today getting more diverse, more distributed, and more digital, CHROs need to urgently evaluate enterprise scale tools that can help consolidate and manage employee engagement.

In the post-COVD era, a global labor and talent market is emerging, freed from the shackles of location — at least in some service-oriented verticals and in many business functions that do not need in-person presence. This is further driven by the explosion in knowledge workers — a group that is estimated to top one billion by 2023Opens a new window , with more than four-fifths of that growth coming from the emerging economies. In this scenario, employee engagement holds more strategic significance than ever as it can be directly linked to measurable HR outcomes such as hiring, retention, diversity and productivity of employees. This McKinsey report Opens a new window estimates that using social technologies can raise the productivity of knowledge workers by 20 to 25 percent.

Enter a new category of HR tech tools called Enterprise Social Networking Applications (ESNs). A far cry from the office intranet of yore, Gartner defines these as tools to “facilitate, capture and organize open conversations and information sharing between individual workers and groups within an organization.”

With that definition in mind, it is easy to confuse enterprise social networks with collaboration tools, project management tools, unified communication tools, and even standard business management tools such as CRM and ERP, many of which now have some elements of social engagement via collaboration and conversation capabilities.

However, the scope and purpose of an enterprise-scale social network (ESN) is very different from any of these business tools. At a basic level, the difference is that an enterprise social network functions at an enterprise-wide level, whereas some of the other tools such as project management, collaboration, and business productivity tools are possibly used in silos by functions or at a team or project level.

5 Core Advantages of Using an Enterprise Social Network

For CHROs committed to leveraging them optimally, ESNs — even as they continue to evolve in form and function — are proving to be an increasingly important way to improve organizational communication, collaboration, and co-creation, with significant business outcomes. Let’s delve deeper into the advantages of deploying an ESN.

#1 Smoother communication, interaction, learning and collaboration across the organization, beyond the team, function or geography

These applications let authorized employees across functions and even business units connect, discuss, collaborate, and share information and updates at individual, group, team, project and community levels, in both structured and unstructured ways, just like regular social networks. Conversations can go beyond the immediate scope of one’s job, one’s geography and also beyond one’s hierarchical level, thus truly democratizing organization-wide communication and the potential for collaboration, co-creation, and innovation. ESNs can also help with the organization’s diversity goals and objectives, and aid productivity by helping employees connect with the right resources to help with specific tasks.

#2 An always-on way for executives and management to communicate with all employees in a transparent and ‘open to all’ manner

ESNs enable company-wide announcements and information sharing from HR and other executives, but at a more strategic level, they allow executives to get engaged in 1:1 discussions with employees across the firm, which would otherwise be impossible. Such interactions could be a valuable – indeed priceless – source of insight for executives into the pulse of employees across the organizational length and breadth, and a great way to keep employees motivated as valued members of a large, distributed, and often global team as they engage directly with leadership.

#3 Strategic value for HR

ESNs can help track the network of relationships between participants via capabilities such as social graphs, giving HR insight into what team models and collaboration efforts seem to be working better than others. The tools can also help map how collaboration and co-creation happens, insights from which can help in structuring more successful organization-wide initiatives in the future and drive more realistic performance incentives based on what really motivates people. It can also be the single hub for social advocacy, volunteering initiatives, building alumni connections, leveraging employee referrals for talent acquisition, welcoming and onboarding new hires, and more – all key to the HR mandate.

#4 Personalization of employee experience

Advanced enterprise social networks also help HR personalize employee experiences, predict churn and monitor (dis)engagement levels with tools such as predictive analytics, sentiment analysis, and more powered by AI. When integrated with other tools such as the LMS (for personalized learning journeys), HR portal (for admin needs) and performance management and people analytics tools, these can become powerful sources of insight into employee behavior and needs, thus enabling the design of even more compelling employee engagement strategies and activities.

#5 Creation of an organizational-wide culture

ESNs can play a big role in helping build an organization-wide culture of openness, sharing transparency and collaboration, especially for diverse, distributed, and remote teams that may struggle to find common ground or connect with the organization beyond their own team and manager.

Key Challenges Ahead

Each of the advantages of ESNs can be directly tied to employee engagement, which is already known to impact organizational productivity. Opens a new window However, on the flip side, some persistent challenges with ESNs remain around selection, adoption and with proving its business value. CHROs need to pay close attention to the pitfalls of sub-optimal ESN deployments.

#1 Selection

Identifying the purpose of the ESN and mapping each tool for cultural fit is key to selecting the right tool. HR should define what the business will achieve by the deployment and organization-wide adoption of the tool. Companies often make the mistake of deploying an ESN because others are or because they have a considerably younger workforce and assume that an ESN will resonate with them. Tools such as Workplace by Facebook, Gsuite, Teams  from Microsoft (with Yammer), Zoho Workplace and LumApps Social Intranet are all available, aside from hundreds of other smaller solutions. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and CHROs and their teams must find the best cultural fit around a platform that can best help meet their specific goals  and objectives, even as the technical team looks into the criteria such as seamless integration with other tools used by the organization, device-neutral access, security and privacy concerns, etc.

#2 Adoption

This area remains a challenge for ESNs due to the blurring lines between various internal communication tools and an organization-wide ESN. Most teams would already have their own preferred collaboration and project management tools deployed, such as Slack, Teams, Asana, Jira etc.

Many of the business productivity softwares  from ERP to CRM also have their own chat features that let members communicate effortlessly, such as Salesforce Chatter. Most employees will resist adding on one more log-in and profile to manage, unless they understand the true purpose behind it. HR needs to make the distinction between business productivity tools and an organization-wide ESN, and clear ‘what’s-in-it-for-you’ benefits of using it across all employees for getting their buy-in.

Adoption is also often hampered by trust issues: often employees fear surveillance by HR or managers monitoring the time spent by them on ESN. HR needs to train managers to understand that time spent on the ESN is part of productive work and learning, even if certain discussions may be beyond the scope of the immediate work. Executives setting an example with their own consistent visibility on the ESN will go a long way to dispel these fears. HR should resist controlling employee interactions and conversations, and in fact encourage employees to own the ESN by steering channels and projects. Without the participation of employees who leverage the ESN fearlessly, it will fail to meet the goals for which it was deployed.

#3 Proving business value

With social elements being added into the most standard business productivity softwares (for example, Microsoft Teams has Yammer and Salesforce CRM has Chatter), it is harder to prove the business case for an additional ESN. However, as we have seen, the purpose of both is very different, and this is the reason why an ESN comes under the purview of the CHRO, whereas a business productivity tool is selected and deployed by functional leaders. If the purpose of the ESN is clear, then the metrics to track business returns are easier to define. At the business case stage, it is best to steer clear of generalizations such as ‘an ESN will improve employee engagement’ or ‘better engage younger employees.’ Instead, HR should define what employee engagement looks like in the specific context of their organization and then define each area where the impact of the ESN can be felt, who will benefit and how. For example, if talent acquisition is defined as an objective, then you can track employee response and actual referrals for posts about new job openings as a metric. Similarly, if employee retention or productivity is a goal, then HR can run studies and surveys to map the relationship between an employees’ engagement on the ESN and their productivity or longevity with the organization.

How do you see the value of enterprise social networks growing as we move into 2021? Let us know your thoughts on LinkedInOpens a new window , FacebookOpens a new window , and TwitterOpens a new window .