Overcoming Three Roadblocks to High Performance with Enterprise Social Networks

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

My research is leading me to some interesting perspectives on how enterprise social networks (ESN) can improve performance in organizations. Etienne Wenger’s work on Communities of Practice suggest several business problems that can be overcome through the effective use of ESNs. These problems are roadblocks to high performance, and developing communities of practice on ESNs can remove some of these roadblocks.

Roadblock 1: Speed of Knowledge Economy

Things (economy, competition, customer needs, innovation, etc.) are moving way too fast for the manner in which most organizations are structured. Moreover, the collective knowledge of any field is changing at an accelerating rate. Centralized communications, knowledge management, and training functions cannot keep up with the ever-changing need for information. Wenger (Cultivating Communities of Practice, 2002) says it best: “Without communities focused on critical areas, it is difficult to keep up with the rapid pace of change”. Active communities of practice can keep up, especially if much of the community’s participation is on a enterprise social network. Conversations on ESNs occur at the very speed at which the business (and its participants) are running. They are naturally in sync.

“Knowledge is not static. It is continually in motion” (Wenger, 2002). If knowledge is not static, why do we create static communications, knowledge bases, and training materials?

ESNs allow ongoing conversations and resource creation that is ever-changing and at a pace that can keep up with customers, competition, and the changing economic environment.

Roadblock 2: Traditional Training, Communications, and Knowledge Management Situated Away from Work 

“Traditional knowledge-oriented structures such as corporate universities, training departments and centers of excellence have usually been located at headquarters or otherwise centralized or located away from the business  – separated from the business and separated from the very people who put the knowledge to good use” (Wenger, 2002). Think about it this way…people have to leave work to go to training. Shouldn’t we try to bring learning and performance support resources to the work, where people perform? ESNs allow learning to be brought to the work, rather than the other way round. This occurs through continuous conversation and dynamic resource creation.

Roadblock 3: Unstable Organizations

The days of long-term, stable employment in large companies are gone. If people are not changing jobs every two to three years, they are almost constantly being organized, restructured, and re-aligned. The irony of the modern organization is that communities of practice on ESNs are more stable than the so-called stable organizational structures that we traditionally try to build. “In fact, in a fast-moving knowledge economy, business units are constantly being reorganized, projects come and go, teams are assembled and dispersed. Communities of practice offer stability” (Wenger, 2002). Wenger goes on the share a story of an engineer who says, “You are redeployed so often, the only source of stability is your community of practice”.

No matter who the new VP of Marketing is or whether operations now reports to finance or to the CEO, product managers can always meet for beers, coffee, or chat in an ESN group that they created to kick around design ideas independent of the chaos created by paranoid and chronically-impatient executive teams. Communities practice on an enterprise social network provides that stability.

ESNs As Performance Roadblock Busters

ESNs break down many roadblocks to high performance in organizations. A traditional solution to the roadblocks above is to work longer and harder causing stress, poor quality, and dysfunctional communications throughout organizations.

Developing communities of practice on ESNs, allows people to keep up with a continuously and rapidly changing business environment by making it easier for people to find each other, work with each other, and respond to the current state of the economy, competition, and customer needs.

How are you fostering communities of practice on your enterprise social network? How has performance improved in your organization?

Bill Cushard (@billcush) is writerblogger and learning experience (LX) designer and facilitator. He has extensive, in-the-trenches experience in creating learning programs that incorporate semi face-to-face and social learning methods. You can follow him on Twitter or on Google+.