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When it comes to enterprise social networking, many companies are like middle-schoolers and sex: They've heard about it, they're intrigued but also wary, and they're not quite sure how it works or exactly what it's for.
Consider this comment from a respondent to the InformationWeek 2012 Enterprise Social Networking Vendor Evaluation Survey: "There seems to be a lot still to get our arms around as we approach enterprise social networking. We recognize the potential benefits but are still working through the best way to make it work well in our organization."
Companies face a crucial choice. They can build out social networking as a standalone product. In that mode, employees switch back and forth between their day-to-day work and the social application, interrupting their regular work to be "social."
The other option is more daring--and potentially more rewarding: Social networking becomes part of the way employees work. It's baked into other applications so social activities are integrated into the overall workflow. The intention is that, used this way, social networking eliminates the silos that have been built up around content repositories and applications, and information will flow where it's needed. Social networking becomes a fabric for conversations and content discovery throughout the business.
The right approach depends on a variety of factors, including user adoption, IT's willingness to tolerate the erosion of traditional information silos, and your company's attitude toward enterprise social networking in general.
The standalone approach to enterprise social networking will likely deliver some usefulness, letting groups discuss topics important to them and enabling more sharing across broader corporate boundaries than was previously possible. But for many companies, this approach will be a disappointment. It may get used only among pockets of employees. Worst case, the social application withers and dies from lack of use, or it becomes a noise generator of banal status updates and "likes" that don't drive productivity.
The broader integrated track is likely the better one for most companies. But it requires taking a hard look at what they want from social networking and just how far they're willing to let it penetrate into the enterprise.
A good place to start is to integrate collaboration applications and social networking. These two product categories are rapidly converging. Social networking also is creeping into applications beyond collaboration, including CRM, human resources, and IT management. To take advantage of these emerging capabilities, companies must face the critical question of just how social they want to be.