Private Social Networks: Why Your Company Needs One

Uncertain about the risks associated with public platforms and how a private social network might soothe your worries?  This post provides an overview of the risks associated with public platforms and describes how private social networks (which I prefer to call private digital networks) can reduce those risks while also enhancing communication and collaboration among organizational stakeholders as part of eCornell’s Tech Tuesday series from The Denovati Group.

Public social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn can help organizations of all types enhance their marketing, public relations, and other external communication efforts, but they may not be the best choice for facilitating more private interactions.

Private social networks are also referred to as enterprise social networks, intranet 2.0s, social intranets, enterprise 2.0 platforms, social business platforms, digital communities, and similar labels. The basic idea behind them is to provide 2.0 or social media functionality within a private or secure environment, using a proprietary platform rather than one of the publicly-available social networks.

Public vs. Private Platforms

Recognizing the value of leveraging social media, organizations have been establishing and building their presence on public social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and LinkedIn, as well as semi-private platforms like Ning. These platforms can be very powerful for external applications like marketing, branding, and public relations, but they present a number of risks and challenges, including:

  • Sharing information about organizational stakeholders (e.g., employees, business partners, board leaders, members) without their express permission.
  • Exposing minors (a special risk for private clubs, schools, religious groups, health care and non-profit organizations). See this post for a more in-depth discussion of this risk.
  • Being held responsible for unofficial presence/activities that appear official.
  • Limited ability to monitor/control communication between staff and other stakeholders.
  • Challenges maintaining relationship boundaries.
  • Seeing things that may require taking unwelcome (but legally necessary) action.

Recognizing these risks, some organizations have attempted to create private spaces on public platforms, but there are downsides to many of these solutions as well. For example:

  • Closed Facebook groups (vs. Pages): tend to be personally oriented, which may not be appropriate for professionally-oriented interactions.
  • Closed LinkedIn groups: tend to be professionally oriented, which may not be appropriate for personally-oriented interactions. LinkedIn is also not a viable platform for organizations working with minors.
  • Private Twitter handles: tend to have a relatively low number of users, and generally only enable one-way communication between an organization and its stakeholders.
  • Private Flickr accounts and blogs: tend to present challenges in terms of driving traffic to them and promoting engagement.
  • Ning communities: create yet another account for people to manage, and the platform is not completely private.

These issues are compounded by a more general set of challenges, including:

  • Some people strongly dislike platforms like Facebook and Twitter and will refuse to set up accounts and engage on them.
  • Each platform has limited functionality, and organizations have limited control over their design and features. More importantly, they have virtually no control over – or even warning about – platform changes.
  • Privacy on public platforms like Facebook is kind of an illusion. Even if other users can’t access certain information/activity, the platform provider can – and does.
  • There is no easy way for an organization to integrate activity in the various platforms, either within a platform or across platforms.
  • Managing a presence on multiple platforms is challenging for both organizations and their stakeholders. People have different preferences for platforms and features, and are inconvenienced by having to manage multiple sign-ons.  And managing multiple platforms requires a lot of time and effort from organizational staff.
  • Trying to accommodate multiple objectives and preferences on public platforms often results in cannibalization of an organization’s digital engagement efforts. When individuals/groups carve out their own spaces on public platforms, the organization loses control. In addition, to the extent these spaces are publicly known, the organization’s brand – as well as its goals and objectives – can be compromised.

Establishing a private digital network can alleviate the risks and challenges associated with using public social media platforms for communication and collaboration among organizational stakeholders. It can also produce other benefits, including:

  • Organizations can create a digital community/space to correspond with their physical community/space(s).
  • Rather than having relevant digital interactions spread out across a variety of platforms, they can be contained in a single shared space.
  • The private digital network can be connected to the organization’s website and other digital platforms, which facilitates access and increases the likelihood of engagement. Increased digital engagement can lead to increases in other forms of engagement.
  • With its own digital network, organization-related interactions among staff and between staff and other stakeholders occur in an official, sanctioned, private environment, which helps create and maintain proper boundaries.
  • A digital network promotes better communication and collaboration by enabling people to interact in various ways (e.g., via wikis, blogs, chats, forums) in addition to direct messaging (i.e., email).
  • Private digital networks not only maximize flexibility for both individuals and organizations, they offer more control over the design and features of the digital platform through which people interact.

It’s a Question of “When” not “If”

In spite of the very real potential benefits private digital networks offer, many organizational leaders are still hesitant to pursue them, for a variety of reasons. Here are some of the most common reasons offered, and counterpoints for each:

We can’t afford it

The costs of enterprise social software vary widely. In addition to large, relatively-expensive, enterprise-oriented solutions like SharePoint and Jive, there are also free (e.g., Yammer and’s Chatter) and relatively low-cost (e.g., 37 Signals, Intranet Connections) solutions. Many of these products/services are designed to be “out-of-the-box” solutions, which means they require relatively little customization and can be implemented fairly quickly and without significant IT support. Social software does not have to be a budget buster.

Our people won’t use it

Time and again organization leaders have found that individuals are far more ready to use social software than they think. Managing enthusiasm has proven to be a far bigger challenge than managing resistance. In addition, a well-designed platform will be user-friendly and easy to use, which will increase both the speed and extent of adoption.

People will waste time socializing rather than working

Performance management is a leadership issue, not a technology challenge. If people want to avoid work, they’ll find a way – with or without technology. In reality, one of the biggest benefits of social software is that it can enhance efficiency and effectiveness. It can also increase engagement and boost morale in a variety of ways.

Choosing the Right Tool

As the Digital Era continues to evolve, leaders will increasingly recognize the need for their organizations to establish a social/digital presence across the privacy spectrum. Each type of platform has a role to play in achieving an organization’s goals and objectives. To wit:

  • Public spaces like Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, LinkedIn Company pages, Google Plus pages, and YouTube channels support externally-oriented objectives like marketing, branding, PR, and recruiting.
  • Semi-Private spaces like Ning communities, Facebook groups, and LinkedIn groups enable communication and collaboration among individuals who have shared interests (but aren’t in the same organization).
  • Private spaces promote secure, confidential, and regulated communication and collaboration among individuals who are linked by a common organizational identity/interest.

Choosing the right tool for the task (or in this case, the right social technology), should be driven by an organization’s strategy and a clear understanding of what each tool can help the organization achieve.

Click here to view the original post on the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) website and access related resources.