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Get Real: Social Networking in the Workplace
By Chris Yeh, VP enterprise marketing, PBworks

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 cut costs.

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 networking principles.

Building Teamwork
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 workplace.

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 and authorizations.

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 2.0 initiatives.

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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