Despite the increasing evidence of the benefits of employee social networks within organisations, their promise remains largely unfulfilled. Some people question whether such enterprise social networks will ever become established as destinations in their own right.

Instead, they suggest social networking features will be added to existing enterprise applications, making all applications social. This is very likely, but to suggest that this removes the need for a cross-department enterprise social network is missing the point entirely.

Many social business advocates have made reference to the concepts of systems of record and systems of engagement first introduced by Geoffrey Moore. Moore asserts that most enterprise IT spending over the last decade has concerned systems of record which represent an authoritative source of an organisation’s data, but provide very few opportunities for users of these systems to interact with each other.

These systems of record need to evolve into systems of engagement to enable enterprises to collaborate better and use this data to make more effective, more timely business decisions.

Some vendors of systems of record will claim they are already adding social features. But can these claim to be true systems of engagement if they are tied to one application? Can a CRM system really provide collaboration capability for the whole company, not just users of the CRM?

There are direct echoes here from the early 2000s when enterprise portals emerged. Many ERP, CRM and even business intelligence vendors claimed they had added portal capabilities to their products. But a true portal provides access to a wide range of systems; if it only provides access to a single vendor’s system, it can’t be considered a portal.

The same is equally true of social features added to systems of record. If this just creates a social network for existing users of that system, it can’t be considered a true enterprise social network; it merely perpetuates the data- and process-centric nature of the current enterprise systems by creating “social silos” that do nothing to connect people across the company.

Let us consider an organisation of 500 people. It may be that just 50 of these are users of the CRM system. Yet CRM data may well be very useful to many of the other 450 employees, and the knowledge of the 450 may be invaluable in helping the 50 CRM users resolve issues they are working on. It is clearly not practical for the 450 non-users to join a social network tied to the CRM system.

Would the finance department similarly demand that everyone joins their social network? And would the HR department demand everyone joins their network? No, in order for the social layer to be effective, it cannot be limited to a single system or department. It needs to connect people across the organisation, whichever enterprise applications they use.

There are certain parallels with consumer-focused social networks. Many sites like Flickr, WordPress, YouTube and Pinterest allow members to form social connections with each other. But a user has to create a separate set of connections on each service; these are predominantly content-centric networks. In contrast, people-centric networks like Twitter, Google+ and in particular Facebook aim to establish a layer of social connectivity across a much wider expanse of the internet.

Edd Dumbill, writing about Google+ shortly after its launch, described: “the rapidly growing seed of a web-wide social backbone, and the catalyst for the ultimate uniting of the social graph”.

A “social backbone” is a very good description of what an effective enterprise social network should seek to achieve – a pervasive social layer that enables cross-department collaboration around corporate data and processes.

So ultimately, whether a company-wide social network is a destination in its own right or embedded into other enterprise systems really shouldn’t matter. What is far more important is whether the social network connects people across the whole organisation. It should provide an enterprise social backbone, enabling employees from different departments and regions to work together, irrespective of the systems of record they’re using.