Posted by: karisyd | March 5, 2015

ESN communities – built from top to bottom

Or: How influence in ESN changes over time

In a recently published paper we report on a study we carried out with data from the ESN network at Deloitte Australia. We investigate the ways in which users derive influence from a) their position in the company hierarchy and b) their activity in the ESN. Importantly, we measure how these forms of influence (formal and informal) change over time as the ESN community forms and matures.

What we did

We measured a) if users in higher positions in the hierarchy derive more influence from their position and b) if more active users (measured by number of messages posted) derive more influence than less active users. Influence is measured as the average number of replies a user elicits for each message they post. The assumption is that it is a sign of influence when users are able to get more responses to their messages from the community.

We then split the 110,000 message in our data set into three time periods with equal number of messages in order to capture any changes in the above measurements – to see if influence in the network changes as the community emerges, grows and matures.

Please note that due to the large scale and quantitative nature of the analysis, we only utilise structural data (meta data), e.g. who responds to whom, but did not take into account the actual message content. We would also like to note that, while only based on one case study, the Deloitte case is ideally suited to study influence, for three reasons: 1) as a professional service firm, hierarchy is an important mechanism for work allocation, so that the case allows studying the role of formal influence, 2) much of the work at Deloitte is knowledge work, which means the ESN plays an active part in information search and knowledge work, which allows studying the effects of user contributions (informal influence), 3) the Deloitte ESN is highly successful and widely adopted in the organisation, which makes it a good candidate to study ESN community emergence.

What we found

Formal influence is only present early:

  • The formal influence that users derive from their position in the organisational hierarchy is present only in the early stages of ESN emergence. It disappears in later periods.
  • We also find that ESN afford users to move into positions of informal influence by way of their contributions to the network – more active users are more influential. This influence is strongest in the early stage, meaning that early adopters move into influential positions initially. While still present in later stages, the influence diminishes.

The community becomes more egalitarian over time:

  • Both forms of influence, formal and informal, diminish or disappear over time, which means that the ESN produces more egalitarian and inclusive communication structures as the community matures.
  • While quite imbalanced early, all hierarchical levels become more equally involved with the ESN over time, and communication between hierarchical levels intensifies (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Average number of messages per user on each level of hierarchy

esn community1

What it means

With this study we are able to find support for the widely held assumptions that a) ESN will allow active users to gain influence regardless of their position in the formal hierarchy, and that b) ESN lead to more egalitarian and democratic structures of participation. Figure 2 summarises our findings.

Given that the Deloitte case presents a highly successful ESN we can also make conclusions regarding the way in which successful ESN proliferate: they resemble existing influence structures early, but build out unique structures over time. And ESN appear to be a vehicle to get the organisation talking across hierarchy levels.

On a final note, the case shows that the senior leadership of the company (e.g. partners) were very active early in the life of the community, which we see as an important success factor, because it legitimises the use of the ESN (leading by example).

Figure 2: Summary of ESN community development in three stages

esn community2


Riemer K, Stieglitz S and Meske C 2015 ‘From Top to Bottom: Investigating the changing role of hierarchy and influence in Enterprise Social Networks’, Business & Information Systems Engineering, DOI 10.1007/s12599-015-0375-3. (if you would like to receive the full paper, please email me:



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