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Claire Hedley

Northumbria University

Senior Lecturer in Organisation & Human Resource Management

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Enterprise social networks – where are we?


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In 2006, Andrew McAfee introduced the term “Enterprise 2.0” into the academic lexicon. He made a clear distinction between digital platforms which sit behind an organisation’s firewall and those in the public Web 2.0 arena such as Facebook and Twitter.

The result? Employees could communicate with each other on a platform exclusively designed and built for them. Enterprise Social Networking was born – brand new channels for expressing individual and collective voice in the workplace.

The rise of social media in society as a whole has occurred at an astonishing rate.

Until recently, however, most organisations’ social media strategies have been outward-looking, focusing on customers and consumers, while neglecting employees.

But with the advent of the digital native Millennial generation into the workplace (swiftly being followed by Generation Z), this is all set to change.

Even by 2020, it could be entirely possible that many organisations will be wholly reliant on their Enterprise Social Network (Silverman, Bakhshalian and Hillman, 2013) in much the same way we are with email and smart phone technology today.

Unsurprisingly, there has been considerable discussion and speculation in the practitioner literature on the possible impact that Enterprise Social Networking will have on employee voice, because there is no doubt it has enormous potential to change the way people collaborate, communicate, organise their work and give voice to their opinions and expectations  (Reddington, 2012).

Recent CIPD research (Silverman, Bakhshalian and Hillman, 2013) has explored the relationship between employee voice and Enterprise Social Networking from a number of different angles, such as encouraging employees to engage in meaningful dialogue and harnessing the wisdom of crowds.

Silverman and his colleagues believe these networks allow multi-directional communication which can result not only in a richer voice by giving employees the opportunity to have a say in an open forum, but enable a more authentic voice because the platforms allow people to rate each other’s comments and identify those which resonate most within the community.

The importance of ‘multi-directionality’

The key feature of enterprise social networking platforms is, of course, their ability to host multidirectional conversations. This is significant for any study of employee voice, because almost all traditional voice concepts are one- or two-directional, up and down the organisational hierarchy, meaning they have very limited explanatory power in the online arena, where peer-to-peer or sideways discussions dominate.

Enterprise Social Networks are now recognised as playing a vital role as enablers of employee voice, yet there is no doubt that the pace of technological development we have seen over the last decade has far outstripped academic research on its implications for employee voice (Balnave et al., 2014).

This has therefore become an important area of focus, not least because the tremendous use of social networking technologies by so many individuals seemingly supports the contention of voice researchers that it is human nature to want to engage in voice in the first place (Budd, 2014).

Yet the fact remains that while there has been some HR practitioner-focused research into the use of Enterprise Social Networking, most of the research from an academic perspective comes from Information Systems.

Research here has progressed over the last few years from basic understanding of function and use towards development of more sophisticated typologies.

Researchers in Australia have now developed a “use catalogue.” The SOCIAL framework describes various conversation types: Socialising, Organising, Crowdsourcing, Information Sharing, Awareness Creation, and Learning & Linkages (Riemer and Richter, 2012).

But this is only one side of the story. It is time to redress the balance, place HR Management at the heart of this research and explore use of the networks from the perspective of employees. Then we will have a more balanced understanding of the relationship between the two. 

My new research aims to achieve exactly that.

  • How does the platform work in practice as a mechanism for employee voice?
  • How do employees interpret messages and draw them into every day work?
  • And crucially, how can we reconceptualise employee voice to include multidirectional conversations?

In 2016, we will have the answers to those questions and more.


Balnave N, Barnes A, MacMillan C and Thornthwaite L (2014). E-voice: how network and media technologies are shaping employee voice.  In Wilkinson A, Donaghy J, Dundon T and Freeman RB (Eds) Handbook of Research on Employee Voice (pp 439-454). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Budd JW (2014). The Future of Employee Voice. In Wilkinson A, Donaghy J, Dundon T and Freeman RB (Eds) Handbook of Research on Employee Voice (pp 439-454).  Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

McAfee AP (2006). Enterprise 2.0: The dawn of emergent collaboration.  MIT Sloan Management Review, 47 (3) 21-28

Reddington M (2012). Managing the “employment deal.” In Harnessing social media for organisational effectiveness: A collection of thought pieces. London: CIPD

Riemer K and Richter A (2012). S.O.C.I.A.L. – Emergent enterprise social networking use cases: A multi-case comparison. University of Sydney Business Information Systems Working Paper Series.

Silverman M, Bakhshalian E and Hillman L (2013). Social media and employee voice: the current landscape. Research Report. London: CIPD

2 Responses

  1. From my perspective as a
    From my perspective as a central government employee (and remember govt employs 20%+ of the workforce) I am loath to commit anything to an internal social network knowing that it is all recoverable under the official information regime!

    1. I suppose it depends what
      I suppose it depends what employees want to use it for – if it’s keeping up to date with company news and benefits, or social events and activities then it would still be beneficial, but it’s probably worth keeping personal opinions away from the system in this case!

Author Profile Picture
Claire Hedley

Senior Lecturer in Organisation & Human Resource Management

Read more from Claire Hedley

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