Get Real: Social Networking in the Workplace
By Chris Yeh, VP enterprise
For most serious business professionals, social
networking has become a punchline, if not a
downright nuisance. When we think of Facebook and
MySpace, we picture teens and college students
throwing sheep, sending virtual flowers, and playing
Mafia-themed games. We certainly don't picture a
productivity tool that can improve performance and
Yet while this impression of traditional social
networks such as Facebook are largely accurate, we
shouldn't let preconceived ideas prevent us from
understanding and taking advantage of the potential
power of social networking in the workplace. The key
to successfully using social media in the workplace
lies in understanding that it is a very different
animal from its consumer cousins.
Social Networking Needs a Different Approach
Like any other human activity, social networking has
purpose and utility. Those who say that Facebook and
MySpace are a waste of time are missing the point;
people go onto Facebook for a purpose. That purpose
may be to find a date, uncover new gossip or join
the Colbert Nation, but it is a purpose nonetheless.
Social networking in the workplace has purpose and
utility, but those purposes are very different.
Simply trying to create "Facebook for the
enterprise" fails to recognize that social
networking in the workplace needs to be built around
specific uses to provide real utility.
Facebook's top applications are all
consumer-oriented. The top business application,
Business Networking, has about 18,000 monthly users.
In comparison, approximately 14.9 million users play
Mafia Wars. Simply trying to apply Facebook to
business has failed. A new approach is needed, but
the potential rewards are immense. According to
Forrester Research analyst Oliver Young, "While so
much of the buzz around Web 2.0 has focused on the
business-to-consumer market, the greatest
opportunity today for vendors is in the
business-to-business collaboration space."
Social Networking Goes To Work
Strengths of social networking to the workplace
include three main uses: Building teamwork;
organizing around a project; and organically
building a knowledge base. Each of these activities
is a key success factor for most businesses, and
each can be greatly improved by the use of social
Historically, businesses have spent a lot of time
and effort to build teamwork with staff meetings,
holiday parties and offsite company retreats. What
do these all have in common? They take place face to
face. There is no substitute for actual face-to-face
interaction, but company retreats are difficult to
justify during tough economic times. We need to draw
inspiration from the world of social networking.
Social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter
can provide an impressionistic sense of the activity
around you, much like the buzz in a busy office. But
the problem with these tools is that they require
their users to actively publish their activities.
This works fine for consumer social networking,
since these applications thrive by providing quick
bursts of entertainment and diversion (I often hit
my Twitter account when I have five minutes between
meetings) but less so for the workplace, where every
second is precious.
What's needed is social networking that doesn't
interfere with one's workflow. That's why the
concept of workflow-based notifications is so
powerful; the act of doing your work automatically
generates the kind of short notifications that
generate implicit awareness.
Organizing Around a Project
Workflow-based notifications tie in neatly with the
next major opportunity for social networking in the
workplace, which is organizing around a project. The
default mechanism for organizing most work teams
seems to be the email list (formal or informal). Yet
these lists quickly break down. While they're easy
to start, their lack of structure makes them
difficult to maintain and manage.
In contrast, social networks have become a magnet
for organizing events like parties – they allow
many-to-many communication between the participants,
they allow the participants to collaborate on the
particulars and they are largely self-organizing.
These same principles (communication, collaboration
and self-organization) can be applied to the
By incorporating project management concepts like
tasks and milestones with social networking-style
communication and collaboration and wiki-style
self-organization, you can build a powerful platform
for organizing around a project. Just remember to
insist on the ability to set role-based permissions
Organically Building a Knowledge-Base
Many social media enthusiasts have said that their
networks are like a hive mind; it's common to see
blog posts or tweets asking for advice. But this
approach is too noisy for the workplace. Indeed, in
many ways, it already exists in the practice of
emailing questions to company mailing lists. We all
know how well that works!
To make social networking successful for managing
workplace knowledge, we need to add a more
persistent structure. The trick is to preserve the
informality and ease-of-use of the social network,
which makes it so much more usable than the typical
knowledge management application. One approach is to
allow relatively unstructured knowledge input, such
as with a wiki-like approach, but then provide more
structured ways of slicing into that knowledge. More
sophisticated searching, tagging and classification
can take the information hoovered up by the social
networking approach and make it more easily
distillable into useful knowledge.
Bringing Social Networking to the Workplace
Ultimately, while focusing on specific uses like
building teamwork, organizing around projects and
managing knowledge can help you make social
networking useful in the workplace, each company is
different. One-size-fits-all social software suites
promise a simple solution, but often bog down in
implementation and adoption, much like previous
generations of enterprise software. Indeed, many
companies have already been burned by previous Web
Take a cautious and incremental approach. Find tools
that allow you to solve specific business problems,
and build on these smaller successes. Pretty soon,
social networking in your workplace will go from
nuisance to necessity.
---Source: InfoManagement Direct, August 20, 2009 (www.information-management.com).
Chris Yeh is VP enterprise marketing for PBworks (www.pbworks.com).
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