"To everyone's credit, they saw the value, and started using it organically," he said.
GE also uses other ESN tools successfully in narrower scenarios. For example, the company uses Salesforce.com's cloud CRM software extensively, and its Chatter ESN tool along with it. It also uses Jive Software's ESN suite for a healthcare extranet.
A key is to have a "purpose-driven" ESN, according to Altimeter's Li. "Successful programs have clear prescriptions on how the ESN should be used and why," she said. They're also clear on the specific problems the ESN is meant to help solve, whether it's to make it easier for employees to find experts among their colleagues or to reduce the reliance on email for communications, she said.
"Many ESNs aren't living up to their full potential because they've been implemented as a technology and not as a business strategy," Li said.
Gartner's Rozwell stresses that there needs to be "a compelling purpose for which the tool will be used."
Compelling in this context means not only that the software has to be enticing, but that it also helps people get their job done better, whether that means faster, easier, more efficiently or less expensively, she said.
"The key there is that it's got to help me get my real work done," Rozwell said.
Companies that seek her advice sometimes complain that, for example, they can't get their employees to blog, without having asked themselves first whether blogging will be helpful to those staffers or relevant to their jobs.
The participation of managers, informal team leaders and top level executives is also crucial, because average workers will take their cue from them.
"That demonstrates the fact that this is a real set of tools for everyone," she said. "The leaders have to model the behavior they want others to mirror."
And once people start dipping their toes in the water, managers have to be there validating their efforts, by acknowledging their participation with gratitude.
"You're trying to start up new behaviors, so when people take these new steps and do what you want them to do, it's going to be uncomfortable for them at first, so reinforce their actions," Rozwell said.
For Alan Lepofsky, a Constellation Research analyst, the meshing of ESNs with business processes is essential. "If an ESN is not integrated with tools like file-sharing, CRM, marketing automation, support tracking or project management, then it becomes just another tool, and that is where adoption issues begin," he said via email.
Organizations need to ensure that ESNs are woven deeply in to their core business processes in areas such as sales, marketing and engineering, according to Lepofsky.
All of this means that setting up an ESN that enjoys robust engagement among users takes planning, vision and effort, especially because by definition it involves a change in how people work, according to Forrester's Koplowitz.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.