Matchmaker, Matchmaker - InformationWeek

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Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Internet-mediated social networks can enhance the role of relationships in business decision-making.

By the numbers, process-oriented thinking has long dominated modern business. Sure, we all recognize that CxO golfing and hobnobbing create strategic business value (even if chiefly by diverting the execs so they don't meddle in everyday work) and that our own workplace and conference socializing creates useful connections. Nonetheless, depersonalized decision-making is deemed the best response to efficiency and profitability concerns. The argument is that you can't compute the worth of something you can't systematically measure — I have yet to see a "relationship meter" on an enterprise dashboard — so those intangibles shouldn't have a significant role in an enterprise setting.

The emergence of managed social networks is shifting the balance. Ironically, evolving Internet technology, which fostered first "disintermediation" — elimination of the middle layers that (the thinking went) gum up business processes — and later brought automated reintermediation via online marketplaces that have been a mixed success, is now bringing interpersonal relationships (back) into the decision-making mix. The key factor is the new ability to discover, manage, and systematically exploit formerly soft connections.

Jonathan Becher, CEO of Pilot Software, is an enthusiast. He describes Pilot as a company that is "evangelizing a new, emerging market that bridges the gap between business strategy and day-to-day execution," and from this perspective he sees great potential in social networks. Becher explained in an email to me, "After a week or so of using [one system] for myself, I realized that these networks would have even greater value applied in a corporate environment. I had been thinking about the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference [Michael Gladwell, Little Brown & Company, 2000] and was trying to figure out how to apply the ideas of Connectors and Mavens to work. For us at Pilot Software, it wasn't just building up a large 'subnetwork' so that we had lots of Connections, it was getting access to the Mavens who knew just whom to tell and what to tell them."

Innovation Explosion

Social-network systems are already more than just toys for hipsters looking to hook up — or at least some of them are. Although I haven't tried the instantly infamous Friendster service myself, I did sign on to several seemingly more business-oriented services: LinkedIn, Orkut, Ryze, Spoke Software, and Tribe Networks. These systems focus on creating networks based on common interests or connections and support discussions in some cases and, more usefully, creating trusted paths for transmission of requests. (For more on social networking oriented toward collaboration, see Resources.)

I learned that while social networking — creation of business, personal, or dual-purpose connections — is ages old, we're in the early, "let 100 flowers bloom" stage of a cultural revolution in which technology is transforming previously informal networks. The times are similar to the early days of the Web. Just as then, interface fights are a diversion: In retrospect, there was less difference between Mosaic/Netscape and Internet Explorer than a Naderite would see between the Democratic and Republican parties. Current social networking systems use a Web browser or Windows desktop interface, with only small functional differences between the two.

The key issue now is the same for social networks as it has always been for the Web at large: how best to discover and organize networked resources. In the case of the Web, the question was search engine (such Alta Vista or Google) vs. directory or portal (such as Yahoo or America Online). But while the two Web-search approaches are merging, for now, social networking is still not standardized.

The chief differentiator of social-network systems is whether they center on intentional construction of networks or on automated discovery. The various leading services — and I'm talking thought leadership because market penetration is still low (but growing rapidly) — take diverging approaches. With LinkedIn and Orkut, you construct your network link by link. These intentional connections are meaningful, leading to networks of inherently high quality. Spoke, by contrast, infers a network by mining your email and allows you to manually add to your network. Spoke appears to additionally harvest personal information from the Web and inferring connections, resulting in very broad networks with very significant relevance, accuracy, and timeliness issues similar to those found in Web-search-engine results.

Ryze's approach is somewhere between the two extremes: The system is self-contained but freewheeling if not chaotic in the spirit of the larger Web. While I created a very business-oriented Ryze profile, I was quickly deluged by frivolous "guest-book" entries and business solicitations that had nothing to do with my stated interests. This occurred because Ryze publishes lists of new users — fresh meat is perhaps a more accurate term for these newbies — who ignored my profile. This chaos renders Ryze not worth a second look for enterprise users. There's simply too low a proportion of serious business on Ryze.

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