Community Design: Why are employees lurking in my enterprise social network? It’s complex!

|   Dec 5, 2012

In the workplace, every employee has his or her own reasons for watching or speaking in a meeting or on a call. Power dynamics in the room, the number of attendees, a member’s longevity at a company, and their knowledge on a particular topic all play a role in determining whether or not someone speaks up and contributes or simply listens and takes notes. This is normal workplace behavior, so it should come as no surprise that employee behavior in an enterprise social network is not much different. An enterprise social network should be understood as just one piece of a company’s communication and cultural ecosystem rather than a standalone entity that has completely different rules. At its core, the network is a way for people to communicate and get their work done, and as such, it is helpful for community designers to apply a similar set of expectations and rules to it.

For community designers, understanding why lurkers are lurking is critical to making an enterprise social network thrive. Before worrying that a network isn’t going to succeed because of skewed participation roles, it’s important to understand that lurking meets many valuable employee needs and is indeed a form of participation in its own right. It is a form of “cognitive apprenticeship” and a successful method of learning, not a behavior displayed only due to fear, ignorance, or not caring[1]. This makes the community designer’s role that much more important, knowing that they have the opportunity to set employees up for meaningful lurking experiences and coach sponsors and managers that reading and consuming without contributing is a behavior shaped by a complex set of actions, rationales and contexts[2].

So, what are these complex reasons behind lurking behavior? In general, they tend to fall into the following categories[3] below, and we have outlined some ways to help mitigate each one.

The Individual Member’s Character – how much does an employee feel comfortable sharing and putting his reputation on the line publicly in front of thousands of people? An employee may be new to the company and is concerned about publicly sharing information. Pre-existing social ties in the network may be intimidating to the member, and he or she assumes that others are probably more qualified to add input; they don’t want to be “wrong.” The member may also be unsure how to use the social networking technology, and won’t post for fear of doing something incorrectly. Additionally, though no two lurkers are identical in their reasons for not posting messages, one study found that all lurkers noted some level of nervousness about the response of participants in the community[4].

  • How to mitigate: Community norms and rules need to include an appropriate delineation of “work” talk and “personal” talk; inside jokes or social activity planning should be limited to groups and should not be done in highly visible, public areas. Reprimanding should be discouraged, and only positive discussion encouraged. Official “greeters” or social leaders should be appointed to welcome new members publicly and engage them in safe discussions. Training and educational materials in a variety of formats should be made available so that a user can understand the technical and social ins and outs of the community before getting started.

Community/Group Characteristics – the contents and flow of the community play a crucial role in helping members decide if they want to post or not. At Socialcast, we have found that the first user experience – that is, the user’s first experience with the community and its contents – influences the user’s ongoing expectations and willingness to participate. If community itself does not have enough content or has too many messages, new users may find it irrelevant. At the same time, messages may be off topic, discouraging the new user from posting. Once a user has made an assumption about a network, it’s likely to stick.

  • How to mitigate: It is crucial to make sure that contents of a community are relevant, on-topic, and acceptable for the company’s use cases. When users understand exactly what they should be using the community for, whether it’s to increase sales or to transfer knowledge across teams, they will use that context when creating messages and comments. Creating clear guidelines for appropriate messages is key to ensuring strong content, as is encouraging and incenting valuable participation at all levels of the company. Managers should reward their team for excellent content if possible. Moderation is also important, and having a set of community administrators who can remove unacceptable content while also posting strong content will help.

Stage of Membership – New employees and employees about to leave the company will treat the network differently than comfortably employed veterans who are planning on staying around for a while. New employees will be more hesitant to post messages as they get up to speed, learning the social norms of the network. At the same time, employees ready to retire or leave the company will likely not spend time sharing information.

  • How to mitigate: Human Resources and people managers should include a discussion of the social network in all onboarding programs and discussions to encourage employees to join, introduce themselves, and ask questions. Making the network a part of the expected communication behavior is key. Groups should be created for new employee questions, and new employees can be given tasks to search the community for common questions and resources they’ll need to get started. For retiring employees, encourage them to thank their colleagues and make themselves available for Town Halls or “office hours” where employees can ask them questions in a time-defined space. Finally, encourage team members to publicly thank employees who are leaving in order to encourage them to share the knowledge they’ve retained over the years.

Work Constraints – It is often the case that employees simply have too much work to participate actively in an enterprise social network. Adding another communication tool would simply be too much for them to handle, and they therefore either don’t log in or if they do, they listen and don’t contribute. This is common for executives and people-managers who have extremely constrained schedules.

  • How to mitigate: In addition to all of the recommendations above, community designers should look at finding creative solutions for lurkers at various hierarchical levels of the community. For executives, setting up Town Halls that are time-defined is the best way to create participation; additionally, executive assistants can be employed to assist executives to answer questions and share information based on their limited schedules. For senior managers and those with a busy team, encourage them to broadcast weekly goals and to-do lists to teams via the community; the goal here is to replace an activity that is already going to happen (such as circulating a meeting agenda) with the same type of activity in the community instead. Individual contributors should be encouraged to create groups to manage projects and to replace some email with messages in the network.

It is important for community designers to realize that complex set of norms and behaviors unique to their company fosters the degree of collaboration that will be accepted at a company. Once designers can find and evaluate these unique forces, they can plan for lurking. It is up to community designers to create and tailor a set of activities and programs to make the community as friendly as possible for members. Not only will this make posters more active and willing to contribute, but it will also give employees who only listen and lurk meaningful information; in turn, this will create a higher likelihood that they will eventually post or use the information gleaned from the network in a meaningful way in their day to day work activities.

In future posts, we will discuss how social capital inside a community affects posting and lurking behavior, as well as discuss specific activities that can be employed to incent posting and convert lurkers to posters.


[1] MacDonald, J., Atkin W., Daugherity, F., Fox, H., MacGillivray, A., Reeves-Lipscomb, D., Uthailertaroon, P. (2003) Let’s get more positive about the term ‘lurker,’ CPsquare Foundations of Communities of Practice Workshop, http://www.cpsquare.org/eud/foundations/index.htm

[2] Nonnecke, B., & Preece, J. (2001). Why lurkers lurk. Americas Conference on Information Systems 2001.

[3] Nonnecke, B., & Preece, J. (2001). Why lurkers lurk. Americas Conference on Information Systems 2001.

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What is Socialcast?

Socialcast by VMware (NYSE: VMW) is a social network for business uniting people, information, and applications with its real-time enterprise activity stream engine. Behind the firewall or in the cloud, Socialcast enables instant collaboration in a secure environment. Socialcast is headquartered in San Francisco, California. www.socialcast.com