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Ignore Facebook At Your Peril

Facebook continues to make consumer inroads, yet the social networking site makes 'real business' uncomfortable. Time to adjust.
As Facebook piles on more features, adding TV listings and restaurant reservations to its mobile app and trialing a payment system that ties Facebook ID to credit cards, IT organizations chug along obliviously. The enterprise perception is that Facebook is "personal," not "business," so it has no place in the workplace. Big mistake.

I admit to having a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Even if it's terrific for keeping in touch with friends old and new, I'm not a huge fan of "free" services that carry many hidden costs. In the case of Facebook, account holders aren't its true customers -- ad buyers are -- so we have very little influence with the service.

But don't underestimate the power of Facebook as a business tool. If you're like a friend of mine, you keep your personal and business Facebook presences separate, even if that's a pain to maintain. I have one account for both. First, I don't believe anything on Facebook is private, so why set up a super-secret "personal" account? I just don't post anything on Facebook that isn't suitable for public consumption. Second, I do drink the Kool-Aid that when you're genuinely social with your work associates, that's good for business.

[ If you don't do social well, how is your customer service? Read Bad IT Customer Service Starts At The Top. ]

The beauty of Facebook as a business tool is twofold: It forces social interactions into business interactions in ways that the all-important younger generation is comfortable with (even if older folks aren't); and those social interactions build trust, which can improve sales. On a basic level, if your buddy "Likes" HP switches instead of Cisco, you're more likely to go with HP.

In the same way that Dropbox built a juggernaut of a developer ecosystem by making it easy for third-party developers to use its cloud file storage system, Facebook has built a massive identity management ecosystem. Indeed, Michael Davis, a security executive and InformationWeek contributor, pointed out to me recently that Facebook is, as much as anything, an identity provider, perhaps the single biggest one on the planet. It doesn't just provide participants' identities, but it also provides a rich set of related data. If your company isn't getting on board, it's missing a major opportunity to leverage that information to build trust with consumers.

Facebook is also a great one-to-one communications medium. When I want to contact with business associates who happen to be on Facebook, and I want to make sure my message won't get caught by an overzealous anti-spam filter, I sometimes drop them a line on Facebook. It's a walled garden where, although you have no buyer power, you are the product, so Facebook does its best to retain you by keeping annoying stuff like spam far away.

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Enterprises that continue to have "no Facebook!" rules, or that fail to integrate Facebook into their enterprise architecture plans, are just as outdated as the executive who makes his assistant print out his emails. To be fair, corporate resistance goes beyond IT: HR and marketing departments also tend to stick their heads in the sand when it comes to the more free-wheeling world of social business and integrating work and personal life.

As I observe small and startup companies, I think employees of larger, stodgy enterprises might actually be relieved when the relentless trend of 24x7 on-call work starts to mix in a bit of social fun.

Even if Facebook were to go the way of MySpace, social business isn't going anywhere. Your company probably expects IT to lead the charge -- and IT probably expects marketing to. HR is probably hoping to be left the heck out of it. All three organizations must work together to connect real business to the dominant social business engine.

The first step? Acknowledge the elephant in the room and start the cross-discipline discussion.