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

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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.

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.

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"

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 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.

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