Why ESNs Failed while Team Chat Scaled

Guest Blog by Pankaj Taneja, Director of Marketing at HyperOffice

Why ESNs Failed while Team Chat Scaled

Maybe I am being a little over-dramatic when I say “fail” in relation to Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs). But consider this, Facebook went from non-existence in 2004 to 2 Billion users in 2017 – 26% of the world’s population. This was no mere startup success, but an event in world history. In theory, many of the wonders of social networks like Facebook were exactly applicable to business – open and spontaneous sharing across boundaries, the break down of knowledge silos, and emergent bottom-up solutions to problems from front line workers. These ESNs were going to bring about a seismic shift in organisational culture. This “social” gold rush spawned scores of innovative vendors – Yammer, SocialCast, Jive Software, Salesforce Chatter etc.

Fast forward to today. Yammer, once Microsoft’s $1Bn Work 2.0 acquisition, is buried somewhere in its product pages. Socialcast was quietly put to rest this year, its loyal users nostalgically lamenting the promise never fulfilled.

But even as ESNs were slowly fading away, a simultaneous phenomena was underway. A company whimsically called Slack, offering plain ole group chat, went from non-existence in 2013 to 8M daily active users in 2018 – that’s almost Facebook-like success in the business space. A number of similar solutions followed in its wake, mass market products like Cisco Spark and Atlassian Stride (since taken over by Slack), industry specific solutions like Remind for Education, or function specific solutions like our own uShare for sales.

It is no coincidence that the resurgence of group chat coincided with the demise of ESNs. For some reason, users naturally gravitated to group chat away from ESNs. So what happened? Why did the technology which changed the world forever in the consumer market turn out to be a royal dud in businesses?

It is the information design, stupid

I think the final answers to software success are not to be found in elaborate abstractions. It boils down to people going click-click-click on their shimmery screens. If you can help a user achieve their objective in the simplest, most pleasing way, you’re on your way to success, baby. Even though I am not a fan of B.F. Skinner, this is a realm of pure behaviourism. Whether that click box is at the bottom right or top left, does make a darn difference. Two cases in point:

  • In its snatching of the browser market from Microsoft, Google’s key insight was blurring the boundaries between site urls and search. By turning the address bar into a search bar it won an entrenched market one saved click at a time
  • Facebook’s video consumption skyrocketed when it implemented video autoplay. We don’t get the chance to decide whether they want to watch a video or not. It’s playing already, we’re watching already, and we’re hooked

I think the clues for Team Chat’s success at the cost of ESNs lie in such simple insights. I argue for the following:

  1. ESNs are not ideal for real-time, goal oriented conversations
    In a work context, most conversations are real-time, intensive, and goal oriented. The structure of ESNs is just not suited for such conversations. The visual simplicity of chat – a series of text messages ordered chronologically makes for a distraction free exchanges directed towards a conclusion. The structure of ESNs, multimedia posts, each with a million options – commenting, likes, emotions, viewer settings, following, cross navigation, suggestions – is just too cluttered for this kind of communication
  2. ESNs are too open
    Getting work accomplished always involves a work-group. In more fluid organisations, project teams are formed and dispersed to achieve objectives, but for the duration of the project, the team works as a discrete group. ESNs have blurry boundaries and consider the entire organisation as one big group, while chat rooms seem to provide the “walls” that work groups need to focus on their objectives
  3. ESNs are too dynamic
    Information from ESNs comes in a steady stream from every direction, and is more often than not, not related to the immediate task at hand. This dynamism leads to a state of attention deficit where you are constantly tempted to jump into broader conversations at the cost of productivity. Admittedly, solutions like Slack are now starting to face similar criticism of notification overload, an issue they are actively trying to combat

A lesson Team Chat can learn from ESNs – Knowledge management

It’s not as if team chat does not have issues of its own. Knowledge Management is all about capturing the knowledge that is created within an organisation on a daily basis, and making it available to others across the organisation – helping the organisation grow and mature. However, chat is a perpetually running conversation where multiple threads are constantly added on, get all intertwined and fall of. No Enterprise Search or Artificial Intelligence can hope to effectively retrieve the knowledge hidden in these messages.

In the ESN structure however, every conversation is a discrete object – a post. A post could be a document, or a question, or an opinion, and tends to capture all subsequent exchanges against the same post. This post always exists as a discrete, coherent unit of knowledge, that may be retrieved later and add value.

Once the initial euphoria over Team Chat dies out, these are undoubtedly problems that will become more and more evident. Chat will need to evolve and subsume the best of ESNs.

I propose chat where messages are similar to Posts!

Guest Blob by Pankaj Taneja
Pankaj Taneja is Director of Marketing at HyperOffice, a provider of cloud based business communication and collaboration software since 1998. He admits to obsessively thinking about the digital workplace at the cost of other areas of his life.

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