Social networking stands to benefit businesses

This piece was first published by CIO Magazine in August 2008.

Mention social networking and most people immediately think of sites like Facebook, MySpace or Bebo which let people create lists of friends, send messages to each other, share photos or music, join groups with like-minded-individuals and just generally keep in touch.

Images of industriousness rarely spring to mind, yet many organisations have realised that it’s not all just super-poking and games of Scrabulous, and want to use their own social networks for the benefit of their businesses.

The potential for social networking tools to connect huge numbers of people has been clearly illustrated. Companies want to harness that power themselves, and not just for marketing or recruitment, but also for internal communications and collaboration.

One HR executive recently, rather mournfully, said to me, “Fifty per cent of our staff are on Facebook. Why can’t we get that kind of buy-in?” Although Facebook is primarily a tool for organising your personal life, people also use it for business and, increasingly, companies realise that they have to provide such tools internally or else employees will communicate over the web, potentially risking sensitive company data.

Another significant driver pushing companies to adopt social networking tools is the need to locate expertise within companies whose employees are dispersed across many locations and time zones, a problem exacerbated by restructured offices that emphasise teleworking and hot-desking. It was this, along with the emergence of Web 2.0, that formed the backdrop to IBM’s exploration of social networking.

“One of the most important things within IBM is finding expertise,” says Alastair MacKenzie, Lotus Software brand executive at IBM.

“It is fundamentally important to us both in terms of our efficiency and our competitive advantage in the marketplace.”

IBM started in the most logical place: Blue Pages, its internal phone directory, to which it added profile pages that employees could update. Now those profiles can be tagged with keywords.

“We started hot-desking seven or eight years ago, and we became unable to find people [within the organisation],” says Brendan Tutt, social networking subject matter expert at IBM. “So we had to build a tool to enable us to find people and the skills they have. Having found them we can tag them with keywords useful to us. Tagging is a very big part of our internal tools: tagging yourself, tagging documents, or tagging people.”

But Blue Pages is not just a way to find people by keyword, it is also a way to research a particular person or subject area, by pulling together blog posts, bookmarks (saved in a social bookmarking application called Dogear), and documents related to that person or subject tag. This gives the searcher not just a good overview of how someone describes themselves, but how they are defined by others, and by their own actions and interests.

These interconnections are also described in a graphical view which shows how people are linked together, and thus who to approach for an introduction to required expertise. Social network mapping exposes the network’s structure, so it’s easy to see who is best connected in a given community.

IBM has also built status and location awareness into its tools, so it’s easy to tell whether someone is busy and which time zone they are in. This lets people pick a more appropriate moment to get in touch or schedule meetings. This is, in a business context, what’s called ambient intimacy – the quiet broadcast of information about what you’re doing – which allows people to feel connected to you.

Banking on Facebook
While IBM has created its own tools, Standard Chartered Bank is piloting the use of Facebook for internal use. The London-based bank has over 75,000 staff in 76 countries and with many functional units spread across multiple locations, Standard Chartered needed a way to connect people within the organisation. But why choose Facebook?

“Why should we build a better wheel, if someone has already invented it?” says John Meakin, group head of information security at Standard Chartered.

“So long as one can overcome the security issues, and be convinced of reliability of the service, then why reinvent it just so that you can say you own it?”

Meakin has been piloting the WorkLight WorkBook, a Facebook application which saves the company’s data to their own servers, since the beginning of the year. The pilot has focused initially on a worldwide community of developers who are collaborating and exchanging information.

“Some of them are working in very similar areas, and we are trying to encourage inter-working across the project teams,” says Meakin. “We are also targeting senior management groups, another archetypal business group which is spread across various locations.”

He is optimistic, yet also pragmatic, about their experiment. The bank wants to improve productivity and communications, but Meakin admits that “if the building of communities doesn’t deliver any tangible business benefits then we will limit our investment.”

He adds: “We’ve seen lots of enthusiasm for all sorts of different potential uses, which we’re trying to foster, but we are not sufficiently naive to believe that this will run itself and that all uses will be beneficial. We obviously need to monitor carefully the degree of business use and if we don’t think that it gives real business benefits, we will rein in the extent to which we invest in the platform.”

It’s too early to tell whether Standard Chartered’s use of Facebook is a success, or to even start discussing individual use cases, but what’s clear is that the organisation has a sensible attitude towards the tool, has been careful about data security, and is open-minded about how the experiment may turn out.

But when companies do use tools that are usually associated with personal social interactions for business interactions, the lines between personal and professional can become uncomfortably blurred. Often this is because personal use has bled over into the workplace in an ad hoc manner, without consideration of the business use case and without providing users with good-practice guidelines.

One woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, talked about her experience in a large media company.

“When I started to use Facebook it was because of work pressure,” she said. “Everybody in the office was using it, and it became difficult not to be there, because everybody was swapping photos, arranging work nights out, and even swapping shifts on Facebook. I held out for as long as I could, but eventually I signed up.” At that point, she didn’t understand how Facebook worked and didn’t realise that as soon as she put her work email address in, it would sign her up to her company network.

“The minute I did that, I got lots of people requesting me as a friend,” she said, “Several members of management, six or seven layers above my head, requested me as a friend. I would never have requested them, but you can’t say no because if you reject them they can tell, and so you end up being stuck with these people.

“One of the worst moments was when my boss messaged me at 11 o’clock on a Friday night and said, ‘Why are you still online? Aren’t you working tomorrow?’ I was sitting at home with a glass of wine in my hand and I thought, ‘That’s too weird’.”

This uncomfortable invasion of privacy can become disturbing. She tells of how one senior member of management ‘friended’ her in order to try and dig up personal information on one of her ex-partners. As a matter of course, she is very careful not to post anything revealing, but she is not so confident that her colleagues are as careful with either their own or her privacy.

There is no doubt that social networks are useful tools for helping people in business find each other, communicate, collaborate, and maintain large networks of contacts. The right tools, implemented in the right way, can bring a lot of value to any business, whether large or small, and in any sector. Business is inherently social and, whereas once upon a time business relationships could be maintained in meetings over coffee, and with an annual Christmas card, now we need tools to help us nurture our ever-expanding network.

People who are good at maintaining broad networks also have the advantage of access to their contacts’ networks too, allowing them to draw upon a vast pool of knowledge. Such people can become more efficient, and can make great leaps of progress through drawing on others’ expertise, and are thus more likely to be successful.

People who are good at maintaining broad networks also have the advantage of access to their contacts’ networks too, allowing them to draw upon a vast pool of knowledge. Such people can become more efficient, and can make great leaps of progress through drawing on others’ expertise, and are thus more likely to be successful.

Now, as ever, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and social networking tools help you know a lot more people.

A mindset, not a toolset
It’s key to remember that while there are websites that we call “social networks”, social networking is an act, not an application. Kevin Marks is Google’s developer advocate for OpenSocial, a community-led social networking standards project. Marks’ job leads him to work with a very diverse and geographically scattered group of people. Somehow he needs to manage all these relationships, a task he achieves using an array of tools, including blogs, internet relay chat (IRC) and instant messaging, and sites such as Twitter, Dodgeball, Dopplr, Orkut, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

“Often I will have made a connection with someone through a group or an event,” Marks explains. “Because I blog and Twitter publicly, a lot of people respond to that and connect with me that way. Twitter is particularly useful at conferences, because it gives you an extended sense of who’s there and what they’re doing.”

But for Marks, social networking isn’t about the applications, but the attitude. Many of Google’s tools have built-in sociability.

“In Google Docs,” he says, “the social stuff is pretty subtle, you necessarily don’t see it right away. But multiple people can be editing a document at the same time, and it keeps track of who’s written what. And if you use the spreadsheet or presentation tools, you can also chat while you’re editing, so it becomes a tool for both immediate and asynchronous collaboration. It makes a big difference to how I work.”

Create or aggregate?
Having looked at Facebook and its brethren, and decided that there is value in social networking, the obvious first step is to replicate the tool internally, creating an application people can populate with information. But the problem with social networks, just as with corporate phone directories, is that profiles get stale.

On a personal site, it doesn’t really matter if your photo’s a bit old or you’ve forgotten to say that you’ve moved house, but in business you need to provide accurate and current information, although we’re almost always too busy to do it ourselves. Instead, automate as much as possible so that information is gathered on profile pages regardless of whether we remember to update it.

It’s also more useful to define people by their actions, rather than through hurriedly written self-descriptions. Blogs, wikis and social bookmarking applications all produce RSS feeds which can be aggregated, thus drawing a picture of the individual’s interests and areas of expertise. Profile pages can thus act as a starting point for people to discover more about an employee through what they read (via bookmarks) and write (on blogs and wikis).