Social Networking: A Time Waster Or The Next Big Thing In Collaboration?

Social Networking: A Time Waster Or The Next Big Thing In Collaboration?

Facebook and other social networks in the workplace can
suck up employees’ time and worse. But managed right, they may be the
next breakthrough in business collaboration.

By
J. Nicholas
Hoover, 


InformationWeek

Facebook, the social networking application made popular on college
campuses, is increasingly being adopted by businesspeople. College kids
use it to organize parties, make friends, share photos, and pursue
relationships–but what’s any of that got to do with the workplace? How
the social networking model is applied to business will determine
whether it becomes the next office collaboration tool or the latest Web
app to get blocked at the firewall.

Hinting at the potential of social networking at work, thousands of
employees of Shell Oil, Procter & Gamble, and General Electric have
Facebook accounts. A Facebook network of Citigroup employees–only
those with Citigroup e-mail accounts can join–has 1,870 users. Procter
& Gamble employees use Facebook to keep interns in touch and share
information with co-workers attending company events.

Further evidence of Facebook’s rise among the business card crowd: People over 24 are its fastest-growing demographic.

Still, there are reasons for business and technology managers to be
wary of Facebook, as well as MySpace, LinkedIn, and other social
networking apps. They can sap employee productivity or, worse, be a
source of governance violations or breaches of company protocol. A poll
by Sophos found that 66% of workers think their colleagues share too
much information on Facebook. Forrester Research recently found that
14% of companies have disciplined employees and 5% fired them for
offenses related to social networking. No wonder half of
companies–Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, UBS, and Lehman Brothers
among them, according to Financial News–restrict access to Facebook.

The city of Toronto blocked access to social networking sites four
months ago. "There’s potential for staff to spend an inordinate amount
of time on sites like this," explains a spokesman for the city. "Is it
necessary for work?"

Certainly not if you consider that some of the most popular apps on
Facebook include fortunetelling and comparing yourself to a celebrity.
"A girl in my office and I send each other nonsense and Dane Cook
quotes from 10 feet apart," admits one Facebook user.

The trick for businesspeople interested in using social networks and
for IT departments that need to monitor and manage access to them is to
steer clear of the time-wasting stuff while leveraging the
collaborative potential. An InformationWeek
Research survey earlier this year found that social networks were used
by 48% of compa- nies responding. Uses include viral marketing,
recruiting, peer networking, and even emergency coordination and
communications.

The tools aren’t just those mass-market Web sites: Contact Networks,
IBM, Leverage Software, Microsoft, and SelectMinds all sell products
that let businesses create internal social networks. Some of these
tools also can be used to create communities where customers can
interact, like Nike’s Joga.com, a soccer-oriented social network.

McDonald’s began moving toward social networking after an internal
study showed that employees were often looking for colleagues with
expertise in certain areas or for authors of information they found
useful. McDonald’s employees and some partners will soon be able to
create their own profiles on the company’s Awareness (formerly iUpload)
social media platform, from which they can blog and participate in
communities.

SPY NETS
There are social networks for doctors, advertisers, real estate agents,
and even federal spies. The Department of National Intelligence’s
A-Space project will let analysts post their own profiles and seek
trusted contacts. "We’re very disconnected," says Mike Wertheimer,
assistant deputy director of national intelligence for analytic
transformation and technology.

Social networks can be a great recruiting tool. Lisa Bopst, who works
in the training department at Aerotek Staffing Agency, uses Facebook’s
messaging system to keep in touch with new hires because it’s "less
formal" than work e-mail, she says. Bopst recently helped someone get a
job interview after some Facebook correspondence. Of course, that cuts
both ways. Let employees use social networks, and you may be giving
them just the tool they need to find a position elsewhere.

Jason Cronkhite, marketing director for video compression startup
Kulabyte, uses Facebook to get the word out about his company. "We’re
trying to create conversations with folks," he says.

 

Facebook's Matt Cohler sees big companies doing more

Facebook’s Cohler sees big companies doing more

Facebook is home to more than 1,000 business-oriented community groups,
including Facebook for Business, with 5,300 members. But make no
mistake, businesspeople are vastly outnumbered on the site. Facebook’s
"I Use My Cell Phone To See In The Dark" group has more than 100,000
members.

Your company may need to do some programming of its own for Facebook
and other social networking sites to be useful business tools. Facebook
recently made some of its APIs available, and the site has been flooded
with lightweight application "widgets"–a document-sharing app from
Zoho, a to-do list, and a calendar, for example.

Full-blown enterprise apps are next. "We’ve had a lot of large
organizations start to do things with our APIs," says Facebook VP of
strategy Matt Cohler. Even so, questions of scale and security persist.
"Facebook can be a channel for organizations to reach users, and for
those companies that are small and operate independently, it can be
valuable," writes Paul Pedrazzi, a senior director of strategic
marketing with Oracle, on the Facebook for Business page. But large
companies, he says, "need a different feature set behind the firewall."

Of course, that must mean Oracle has a product of its own. InformationWeek
has learned that Oracle is working with Visible Path to integrate
Oracle’s CRM On Demand application with Visible Path’s social
networking software. The companies plan to demo the capability at
Oracle OpenWorld in November, then make it generally available in the
first quarter.

LEARNING FROM THE WEB
LinkedIn recently surpassed 13 million professional users, including
1.4 million with titles of VP or higher. But LinkedIn comes with its
own challenges. Many account holders use the site for job searches, and
no employer wants its workers doing that. Matt Beveridge, director of
communications technology at Motorola, calls LinkedIn the
"next-generation Monster.com."

Still, LinkedIn is business-oriented, and that’s a step closer to what
companies will demand as they look at how best to use social networks.
LinkedIn sees an opportunity to turn social networking into a service
that crosses application and Web boundaries. The idea is to let
customers "use the platform in multiple places," says VP of marketing
Patrick Crane without being specific. What could he mean? Imagine
accessing LinkedIn contacts from widgets or toolbars installed in apps
such as Salesforce.com and Microsoft Outlook.

While social networks open to anyone’s membership are an iffy
proposition in some companies, they can serve as templates for
businesses creating social networks behind a firewall. Among the design
points for IT departments to consider: The degree to which users are
able to control their profiles, extensibility, and mobility.

A few vendors, like SelectMinds and Leverage Software, are dedicated to
business social networking and have strong social networking components
in their software suites, including Tacit and Awareness Networks. "The
nature of what you do on Facebook is going to be very different from
what you do on our network," says Anne Berkowitch, CEO of SelectMinds,
whose customers include legal firm Kirkland & Ellis and Lockheed
Martin. SelectMinds lets companies create a "closed" network,
accessible only to employees and others with the necessary IDs and
passwords. Closed networks lead to higher-quality, more trustworthy
exchanges, she says.

As with public social networks, SelectMinds networks are
profile-oriented. They let employees describe their expertise, track
engagements and communications with other members, create event
postings and discussion forums, and search it all. SelectMinds has
versions tailored for former employees, retirees, and new hires and
interns, and its software can integrate with PeopleSoft apps to track
new hires and job changes. The company is expanding its integration
capabilities by incorporating standard APIs that allow mashups.

The obvious next step is to integrate business social networks with
business processes. Forrester analyst Rob Koplowitz sees social
networking and CRM integration, like that under way between Visible
Path and Oracle, as a great fit. Social networking can bring people
into specialized communities quickly and efficiently, creating a record
of ad hoc get-togethers that can be managed and stored for future
reference.

NICHE NO MORE
Motorola is expanding its internal Web 2.0 social media platform to
include social networking functionality. The system already supports
thousands of internal wikis and blogs, and a social bookmarking
initiative is under way, too. The social networking layer, which has
its origins in a Sun Microsystems federated enterprise directory, will
let employees create profiles and let people see what information
fellow employees have authored and tagged. "Social networking improves
the quality and the cycle time of the collaboration inside the
company," says Toby Redshaw, the Motorola VP overseeing the project.

Major software companies are jumping into social networking. In
Microsoft’s SharePoint Server 2007, MySite profiles show users’
biographies, Active Directory information, shared links, contact
information, job responsibilities, professional interests, educational
background, blog posts, and shared documents. An "In Common With You"
feature shows characteristics that employees share. Microsoft says it
has 300,000 internal blogs and wikis.

IBM released social networking software in June, called IBM Lotus
Connections, that includes user profiles, blogs, social bookmarking,
and the ability to create communities of employees around interests and
work-related tasks. The Federal Aviation Administration is using a
feature called Activities for disaster preparedness. In the event of an
emergency, the agency would be able to channel RSS feeds from internal
blogs, relevant documents, and plans into an Activities page for
everyone to see and discuss.

IBM says social networks shouldn’t be disruptive. Other
applications–e-mail, instant messaging, Microsoft Office, Web
portals–are already the center of gravity for many professionals.
"When we were talking with people, we heard time and again they didn’t
want to have yet another place to go," says IBM marketing manager Chris
Lamb.

With that in mind, IBM Lotus Connections supports information exchange
with Web services via REST, a technique for communicating XML
information, and Atom, a syndication format similar to RSS. IBM has
portlets for viewing profile and community information in WebSphere
Portal, a plug-in to create communities dedicated to specific tasks, a
version of Connections that runs on BlackBerrys, and a plug-in for
Lotus Notes to run Connections in a sidebar. Additional plug-ins for
Office and Outlook are on the way, and IBM is in discussions with SAP
and other application vendors.

Companies must decide whether to take the build-it-yourself approach or
simply hitch on to social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. Private
networks offer greater control and protection, while the Web approach
makes it possible to reach more people. Weigh the decision carefully,
then communicate it clearly. During a Web 2.0 session at last week’s InformationWeek 500 conference in Tucson, Ariz., speakers warned that employees won’t want to keep active profiles in two places.

SECURITY NIGHTMARE
Social networks could become a security and regulatory compliance
nightmare as communications most often occur outside the firewall,
where an employer has no control over what’s said. Employees chatting
about their jobs could let slip information about projects that haven’t
been made public.

"We could be creating future risk," says Frank Lee, senior VP and chief
systems architect for Wells Fargo. Lee worries about a company’s
ability to retract sensitive information that might get posted by an
employee on a social network outside of the company’s control.

The builders of enterprise social networks play to this fear. "We need
enterprise level data and application security," says SelectMinds’
Berkowitch. "We need to strike the balance between enough free
interaction and fairly conservative enterprises, so they’re not afraid
that this is the Wild Wild West." That cautious approach has succeeded
in getting large accounting and financial firms to sign on with
SelectMinds. However, SelectMinds remains a hosted app, and some
companies still shy away from applications that don’t give
administrators granular and physical control over their own security.

The security challenges of an effort like the National Intelligence
Department’s A-Space are staggering. That’s in part why it’s Web-based
rather than a desktop client that has to get 16 different security
waivers and move across 16 different firewalls. But all this sensitive
data in the browser, even on the secure intelligence intranet, is bound
to raise concerns.

One way A-Space will maintain security will be through observing
traffic patterns, like looking for suspicious anomalous searches.
"Let’s not be Pollyannaish about this," says Wertheimer. "This is a
counter-intelligence nightmare. You’ve got to ask yourself, if there’s
one bad apple here, how much can that bad apple learn?" Still, the
returns should be greater than the risks, he says.

And apparently the risks aren’t great enough for enterprise security
vendors to jump in. E-mail compliance vendor MessageGate could extend
its platform to social networking, but it’s not seeing a need yet, says
VP of marketing Robert Pease.

Not all social network tools follow the approach of Facebook and
LinkedIn, with communities at their core. Using statistical techniques
developed two decades ago, Visible Path’s software can separate strong
and weak relationships by peering into information sources, collecting
and dissecting records of in-person appointments recorded in calendars,
call records, e-mails, the ratios of incoming to outgoing messages, and
the length of time spent communicating with individuals.

"We’re very focused on the different business transactions that
businesspeople are trying to get done," says Visible Path CEO Antony
Brydon. Visible Path powers the "Hoover’s Connect" Web site, operated
by business research company Hoover’s, which lets users know how
they’re connected to companies and people in the Hoover’s database.
It’s the six degrees of separation concept. LinkedIn does something
like it, recommending a friend of a friend as a potential contact.

Northrop Grumman has spent the better part of a decade putting together
what’s become a sort of social network to link the company’s 120,000
employees, which are spread across every U.S. state and several
countries.

Northrop has created what it calls "communities of practice," groups
focused on a topic or technology, from the guts of systems engineering
to a community of new hires. These communities contain documents
associated with the community and a listing of group members with their
professional profiles. Actual collaboration still requires an e-mail
distribution list–not flashy, but it’s the community that fosters such
communications, says Scott Shaffar, Northrop’s director of knowledge
management.

The systems engineering group, for example, is standardizing
engineering procedures and practices for job development and
recruitment. The system found a translator for a group of Japanese
visitors. New employees who told Northrop they were "lost in a sea of
gray," Shaffar says, now have a place to congregate. Northrop was even
able to avoid a $50,000-a-year new hire because it found, via its
communities, a programmer who knew how to code in Ada, a language often
used in Defense Department applications.

Teens and undergrads started the social networking trend; now business
professionals and IT pros are coming up to speed. The pitfalls are
obvious and mostly avoidable, while the benefits remain largely
unexplored by most companies. Curious to know more? Knowledgeable peers
are only a few clicks away.

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