The psychology of Enterprise Social Networks

Are ESNs becoming ghost towns?

Social media are having huge impacts on our ways of being.  That this phenomenon has occurred largely outside of working life is of interest in itself, but now the world of business is finally catching up with consumerism, social movements and the individual.

Bringing social networking “inside the firewall” is the domain of the ESN – Enterprise Social Networks.  Names like Yammer, Jive, Chatter and others are fast becoming the go to places for internal versions of Facebook merged with Google+, YouTube and WordPress.

But as in the words of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park (the movie), “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

There are examples where ESNs have flipped the Field of Dreams thinking – “if you build it, they will NOT come”.  Just because you plug in recognisable technology, people may not see the point of using it, and what starts out as promising project, ends up a digital ghost town.

The social psychology of networks

Why is this? Well, let’s start with research pre-social media. Krackhardt (1990) and Lawler (2002) studied the social psychology of networks, and they largely found that those who were adept at social networking tended to be the more influential, high performers who were more likely to attain promotion.

Further work revealed that positive emotions displayed during networking activities also led to the strengthening of those influential relationships and when applied to work, led to higher quality performance, a little like Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow state.

However, networking in which the person (or people) only have personal gain in mind, has also lead to accusations of Narcissism.

Is social networking just modern narcissism…?

Raskin & Terry’s 1998 Narcissistic Personal Inventory attempted to root out such people by identifying those who drew excessive amounts of attention to themselves and their own power base.

The behaviours they were scanning for included:

  • Arrogance / Superiority
  • Self Admiration / Self Absorption
  • Authority / Leadership
  • Entitlement / Exploitativeness

In popular media, many view social networking as the root cause of a rise in narcissism, to the extent that Jean Twenge even coined phrases “The Age of Entitlement” and “Generation: Me” to describe this.

So although there are some great aspects to ESNs, why, in the light of some clearly risky outcomes, would an organisation ditch its current email-based systems in favour of an open social network?

We are hard-wired to share

Well, it turns out that there is plenty of good to be found in social networking inside a company.

The New York Times 2013 survey explored the psychology of sharing, which found (among other things) that we are hard-wired to want to share. In fact, their research found that content is shared online when it is :

  • Entertaining & valuable
  • Helps to define us
  • Grows & nourishes our network
  • Links to self-fulfilment

It appears that the release of the “happiness” chemical serotonin is linked to the feeling of good done through sharing even online content through likes, forwards and/or thanks posted.

The sharing economy

The sharing economy is often talked about by thought leaders and in particular Rachel Botsman with Collaborative Consumption (e.g. Air BnB).

MIT Sloan also research internal social networks in their August 2012 article by Quy Huy and Andrew Shipilov.  They discovered that Dell and BestBuy had introduced ESNs to their businesses and had seen improvements in productivity and lowered operating costs.

Across their research they also found that where people already felt a degree of positivity about the organisation, ESNs took off.  And as many as 60% of people in those companies reported the introduction of an ESN had had a positive effect on them.

Huy & Shipilov used the phrase Emotional Capital to describe the goodwill demonstrated toward the company.  They found 4 key features described this goodwill in more tangible, yet still emotional terms:

  • Authenticity
  • Pride
  • Attachemnt
  • Fun

It seems that some ESNs can amplify an already solid set of features when a company has a good organisational culture and ways of working.


In her 2013 blog on ESNs, Sarah Dillingham referred to two key factors that inhibit this spread of goodwill, and one way to overcome this.

The two key inhibitors were: a) Senior Managers not believing in ESNs,  and b) everyone else feeling they would come across as a bit of a dunce if they said something lame or uninformed.

Sarah’s research revealed that the one way to overcome this was to allow “Phantoms” to be present on the ESN.  Phantoms would be anonymous posters who could take other people’s “dumb questions” and post them regardless.  They would also seed debate topics and generate interest.

Indeed research into ESNs has shown in many cases, up to 90% of people tend to end up as lurkers with only 10% engaging in active and open posting.

So it appears that we have a spectrum of usage on ESNs with companies (largely) at the cautious/avoidance end, and some pioneers at the fully embracing end. Many companies appear to be experimenting along this line with various degrees of success.

Who’s doing it well?

Let’s take a look at a shortlist of companies that are implementing ESNs well.

CrossRail are successfully using open platforms to connect suppliers and project teams across vast ranges of activities.  London Victoria (LV=) are using the Resolve platform to solve problems and create swift adoption of best practice in their insurance business.  Fuse (an e-learning company) are using an open YouTube-like platform to share learning videos across member companies with rapid take up and high energy adoption rates.

So overall, it appears that the psychology around ESNs is one of caution, uncertainty and suspicion yet when embraced fully with a strategic imperative and the “right” culture, these platforms have the potential to take organisations to new found levels of engagement with their people and efficiency in their delivery.

If we want our ESNs to work, it’s a case of answering the following questions:

  • Do we trust our people and want them to be able to succeed without unnecessary bureaucracy?
  • Do they feel attached to what they do enough to share and solve with people in the company they’ve never met?
  • Do we have the emotional capital balance in the red or the black?

ESNs can, and in most cases tend to, have a positive psychological impact on people and it is likely that we will be seeing more of this in the coming months.

In fact this piece itself may pop up on a post inside a firewall near you.


Friedman, T. L. (2013). Welcome to the ‘Sharing Economy’. The New York Times: Sunday Review.

Huy, Q. and Shipilov, A. (2012). The Key to Social Media Success Within Organizations. Research Feature September 18, 2012.

Jean Twenge

Krackhardt, D. (1990). Assessing the political landscape: Structure, cognition, and power in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, pp. 342-369.

New York Times 2013 Survey

Raskin, R. N. and Hall, C. S. (1979). A narcissistic personality inventory. Psychological reports 45 (2), pp. 590.

Thye, S. R., Yoon, J., and Lawler, E. J. (2002). The theory of relational cohesion: Review of a research program research program, 19, pp. 139 – 166.



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Perry Timms
Founder and Director, People & Transformational HR Ltd. CIPD Social Media and Engagement Adviser. Visiting Fellow, Sheffield Hallam University Business School.
Perry Timms

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