Here's why your social business project just tanked

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Building a successful enterprise social business strategy has a host of benefits, including better communication, reducing email, flattening hierarchies, encouraging innovation, and identifying internal experts. We've documented a fair number of those successes in our Tales from the Cloud series.

But the sad fact remains that, according to Gartner, 80 percent of enterprise social projects fail.

That could make any CIO stop and question if the benefits are worth the effort. As with many enterprise technology projects, it takes more than a tool and a prayer to make it work. Social projects by their nature are human-centered endeavors, perhaps more so than any other type of IT project says Dion Hinchcliffe, Chief Strategy Officer for the Dachis Group and a recognized leader in social business.

"Enterprise social projects typically underperform because of human factors, usually not technology, though having the right social technology can certainly improve adoption and business impact," he explained. Hinchcliffe identifies two major categories for human factors -- culture and process -- and says lack of execution on either one can derail an enterprise social project.

"Some companies just don't have a collaborative culture or native ability in leading constituencies over a digital network. In others, social networks are often fragmented or isolated from key business processes, making them much less useful for getting work done," he said. He adds that many companies simply try to bolt social onto existing business processes, rather than integrating it into the workflow. Failure can result when you're forcing employees to use a separate tool to be social, rather than making it part of the work process.

Michael Krigsman, president at Asuret, who has written extensively on business transformation and why IT projects fail, agrees and says simply building an enterprise social system doesn't mean your employees will come. Far from it: "If you build it and they do not come, then your project has failed. To achieve adoption, an enterprise social project must demonstrate clear value very quickly. In addition, it is important to find a "catalyzing factor" that can help coalesce a community around your new social network," he said.

But because enterprise social projects have a uniquely social communication component, they may fail for different reasons than other IT projects explains Rachel Happe, a principal at Community Roundtable, an organization dedicated to helping companies implement social business projects successfully. 

"Many IT projects fail due to lack of adequate thinking about change management. However, IT projects involving communication have unique characteristics because you cannot force people to communicate well or in a certain way (or measure as easily), so you need to learn how to entice them and you need to create a cultural expectation of open and effective communication and behavior," Happe explained. And she says that's a particularly complex task at enterprise scale because you can't mandate communication -- or at least, you can't do it and expect everyone will respond in the same way.

Instead Happe says you need a solid plan, a good budget and well-defined business cases around your social business project. You also need executive buy-in and participation and a clear understanding on the part of management on the link between culture and performance. Finally, you need a champion who can drive the project and really understands the cultural underpinnings of the organization. (See our interview with Jeff Ross of Humana for a good example of this role.)

Hinchcliffe agrees with this approach and says too many companies are pennywise and pound foolish when it comes to staffing an enterprise social effort and he believes having the right people in place can make all the difference between success and failure.

"I still see large enterprises with tiny social teams and with large expectations of volunteer efforts on nights and weekends. Community management, social architecture, and content development are consistently under funded. These are not major costs, yet social media skills aren't sufficiently valued," Hinchcliffe told me.

Yet if you build the community from the ground up, and it begins to flourish as you hoped, Krigsman says that's only part of the battle. You must then maintain and nurture the community you built. "In the best case, you deploy a community and it quickly gain lots of users. A vibrant community is a clear sign that your enterprise social initiative is working. The challenge then becomes maintaining that community and encouraging it to grow," he said.

As Krigsman explained, "Cultivating and nurturing community are the watchwords for successful enterprise social projects." And it takes work, but if you avoid the pitfalls and take care to build a successful social project, the benefits are so enormous for an organization that it's worth the effort to do it right. And it's so easy to fail if you don't.

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