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9/21/2007
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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.



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.

InformationWeek Reports

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.

Essentials
Platforms
From informal Facebook to business-focused SelectMinds
Features
Blogs, document management, profiles, search are among the options
Security
It's no more dangerous than e-mail
Policy
Keep employees on task, not chatting about Britney's latest faux pas
Cost
Anywhere from free to tens of thousands of dollars in set-up and licensing fees
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.

Illustration by Viktor Koen

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