“Social” Groups in Enterprise Social Networks

In this final article in our series on Enterprise Social Group types, we address the so-called “non-work” groups. One of the greatest fears we hear from Internal Communications Managers on launching their brand new Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) platform is that staff will only use it for frivolous “non-work” communications. When SWOOP conducted one of its very first group benchmarking studies for a large corporate client with more than 50,000 staff, the greatest fear was that the “Joke Sharing” group would come out on top (it didn’t).  

Often the fear of what senior executives might think about supposedly “non-work” groups making use of company resources is a reflection of a lack of maturity of the senior executive as to how social networks work. Way back in the late 1980s, when the field of Knowledge Management was just starting out, we had a visit from an executive from Dupont, who had been credited with having an outstanding global maintenance engineering community of practice. Remember, this was in the age before the Internet, but I vividly recall him addressing the issue of “non-work” communities of practices. In particular, he mentioned one community called “Women of Color” at Dupont. Rather than shut it down, Dupont decided to actively support it. The rationale they felt was, at their stage of maturity in developing cross organizational communities, the cultural message they could send was much more powerful than the minor cost associated with supporting such a community. 

Bankwest’s popular “Pets of Bankwest” Yammer group. The photo with the most likes wins the title of “Pet of the Month” and that photo is featured on the group’s page for the month.

We have heard the same story from several of our SWOOP clients, with respect to their popular ‘Non-Work’ groups. Bankwest is proud of its “Pets of Bankwest” group and quote many instances where staff have been connected initially through that group, where it would not have happened in the course of normal business. When these people come together for “work-related” purposes, they already have a relationship formed from connecting in the pets group. 

At Australia’s largest telco Telstra, the single most discussed topic in its nine-year history with Yammer was on same-sex marriage. The company’s leadership was fully supportive because discussing the topic allowed employees to feel respected, heard, valued, safe and connected. In fact, Gary McGibbon, Senior Social Media Strategist on the Telstra Employee Social Engagement team, says Yammer is where Telstra has built its “cultural home”. 

Telstra staff supporting Wear it Purple Day, an annual LGBTIQA+ awareness day. Supporters wear purple to celebrate diversity and young people from the LGBTIQA+ community.

A global consulting client suggested their LGBTI network was reaching into areas of their client base, not accessible through their traditional client engagement model. At SWOOP we have found these LGBTI groups and other social “non-work” groups, demonstrate the same diversity of connections, and therefore the potential for new innovations, not seen it the more regular work-related groups. 


What was “non-work” is “non-work” no longer 

Wind the clock forward nearly thirty years and we are now seeing some SWOOP clients having their most active and engaging discussions on their ESNs related to issues around minorities like the #MeToo and #LGBTI campaigns. Rather than ignoring them as non-work related distractions, forward thinking CEOs are embracing the opportunity to align their organisational policies with issues that staff are most passionate about. Like Dupont’s “Women of Color” community, not only are they demonstrating their support for inclusion, they are actively engaging with staff to demonstrate a ‘human face’ of management. Executives are clearly now connecting employee engagement with overall performance.  

When we look to our future workforce i.e. millennials, we may get a different sense of what this workforce sees as “work”. The World Economic Forum article on “This is what millennials want in 2018” identified positive social and environmental impact and entrepreneurship and innovation as their two most dominant topics for engagement. You may think that these topics might be tangential to your organisation’s mission, but the millennial workforce may vote with its feet if your organisation’s executive is not in some way addressing these issues in the context of your organisation. 

How to make the most from your “non-work” groups 

We have painted a picture here that even groups sharing dog and cat pictures, or your joke of the day, do at least have some valued connection to “work”. We do, however, accept that there may be a fine line between groups that help build an open and healthy collaborative environment, and those that might distract staff from more important tasks. The marginal cost of providing an online platform for a group is quite minimal these days. As a community manager you might be concerned about the large and growing numbers of groups on your ESN; and it’s therefore natural to want to target the “non-work” groups for removal. 

Our SWOOP benchmarking analyses suggests there is always a ‘long tail’ of less than productive groups and a much smaller proportion of highly engaged groups. We find no bias in both the most engaged, or least engaged groups between “work” and “non-work”.  

Our recommendation is to spend less time worrying about the “long tail” groups and more time looking to support and amplify the more engaged groups, independent of whether you may consider them “work” or “non-work” related. If you feel the executive is becoming concerned about the popularity of a “non-work” group, look to understand the types of staff drawn to the group. Is there an underlying theme of participation that you can recommend the executive engage with? For example, even the activities of a “games” group can be directed towards an Enterprise innovation theme. 

In the end, we need to trust our staff to use their time as productively as they see fit. 

Summing up on our Online Groups Series 

As the final article in our online groups series, it is appropriate to provide a summing up. In the series we explored: 

  1. Teams; 
  2. Communities of Practice;  
  3. Forums/discussion boards, for technical problem solving, idea sharing;  
  4. Announcements/News broadcasting; and  
  5. Non-work recreation.  

Firstly, we covered groups formed as teams. We have now seen a separate category of collaboration software dedicated to teams, led by products like Slack and Microsoft Teams. Today, the majority of organisations conduct their work through teams. There exists rich research supporting aspirations for high performance teams. At SWOOP we are excited to support this trend with a specialised Microsoft Teams analytics product 

Communities of Practice (CoP) have been around nearly as long as Teams. CoPs have become the home of Enterprise Core Competency development. Online platforms have been able to extend the breadth of competency development across the enterprise.  

Forums and Discussion boards were one of earliest users of Internet technologies. They are still the best way for Enterprises to share knowledge on specific problems.  

The Announcement/News groups bring consumer-like social media into the enterprise. Staff familiarity with this style of news distribution makes it a natural way to achieve initial staff engagement on an enterprise digital platform.  

Finally, in this article we challenge whether “non-work” groups really exist today. We argue that any group that can connect staff in non-traditional ways, is providing a “work” benefit in the long run. 

We hope you have enjoyed the series and we look forward to supporting your group work, whatever its nature. 


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