Social Networking, Social Computing: Whatever you want to call it, get ready, it’s coming.

Summary: Social networking in the enterprise is coming fast. There are a number of reasons for the sudden interest. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) provides a platform for social networking in the enterprise. This platform can be used for social networking that is focused on both internal and external business needs and strategies. It’s time to look at and prepare for social networking if you haven’t yet done so.

There have been certain new applications of technologies that are notable because their uptake, their raw adoption rate has been very high. Many of these “new” applications haven’t been all that new if you look closely at their history. The first introductions didn’t succeed, however, because the necessary ingredients for rapid adoption didn’t exist or were themselves not widely used. Sometimes these ingredients were other technologies sometimes they were socio-economic factors.

The first attempt to introduce ATMs, for example, failed primarily because consumers did not feel comfortable executing banking transactions with a machine, no matter how friendly. About eight years later that had changed and there were ATMs anyplace there was a power outlet; withdrawals were free too! Initially email was slow to start in part because early email applications ran on terminal-based systems and most employees that had a need for an email-like service, sales reps for example, didn’t have terminals. When email was “reintroduced” – after many, if not most, workers had access to desktop or even notebook computers – IT departments couldn’t keep up with demand.

There’s a new application that is currently being looked at very closely by many organizations. This activity is merely a precursor to its very rapid adoption, which I believe has already started in innovative organizations of all sizes. I’m referring to social computing, social networking, online communities, communities of practice or whatever you care to call it – in the enterprise.

Why do I say this is underway and its adoption is going to be very fast? First, because everything’s in place and there’s a need. Second, because there’s plenty of first-hand evidence. Over the past couple of months our consultants here at PointBridge have implemented production or POC “social networks” using Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) for four clients. This doesn’t seem all that impressive until you realize that none of those organizations had discussed with us their interest or need for these solutions until late January of this year. More significant yet is that currently there are about 8 or so clients talking with us about how they can implement a social network in the enterprise using MOSS.

Less than six months ago hardly any interest was visible to us; today 12 clients have implemented in some fashion or are looking to do so soon – that’s a big and sudden move.

How are these and other organizations planning on using social networking? It might surprise you learn that there are both internal and external uses. Internally, social networking is being used to locate expertise and build communities. Externally, social networking is being used for marketing, market research, customer service, recruiting and for tracking boomerangs (former employees who are potential rehires), to name just a few examples.

If you think this is a stretch just follow this link, Rogers Connects to Allstate, which was serendipitously provided to me as I was finishing this blog, by Lance Russell our Director of Business Development. If Allstate is pursuing social networking as part of a business strategy, shouldn’t you at least consider taking a close look?

Clearly social networking in the enterprise is a large topic, too large in fact for a single blog article. This is the first in a series of blogs, then. Following some general information about the emerging demand, this blog will focus on the internal use of locating expertise.

Additionally, you can learn more about social networking by attending this webinar on September 17th: Social Networking Inside the Firewall

Why Now?

Why is this happening now? First, all the enabling underlying technologies are in place. Specifically, many organizations that have implemented Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) have discovered they have the platform in place. Furthermore they can leverage that platform very quickly. Second, there are a few significant changes occurring in the United States that have created a need. I’m not a social scientist though so be cautious in how you use the following as I share a little of what our clients are telling us. I’ll also include what I’ve observed and sprinkle in a few personal opinions and conclusions.

We are hearing from our clients that they are very concerned about two items:

  1. they have a large percentage of employees who are rapidly approaching retirement age and
  2. job candidates who have recently entered the workforce from college expect systems that support real-time collaboration, community and other similar capabilities.

Here are a few specifics clients have shared with us regarding the first point:

  • one organization expects 55% of its workforce to retire within the next 5 years,
  • another is looking at roughly 30% in the same period,
  • one has experienced 10% retirement (non-incentivized) in the past year and sees this continuing for the next four to five years.

These are sobering numbers if you consider the collective IP, corporate know how and domain knowledge held by these individuals (not to mention the recruiting challenges this exodus will create).

As for point number two above, these same clients have stated that they cannot attract the talent essential to the success of their organizations without systems in place that meet certain minimal capabilities. Candidates have declined employment offers in part because other employers are perceived to have better systems – at least that is what some candidates have stated.

You can fire up your favorite search engine and very easily locate numerous reports from government and industry groups about the rates of retirement over the next 5 to 10 years and their projected consequences and implications. It’s a bit more difficult to find reports about the workplace expectations of recent graduates but they are out there. For starters take Valerie Germain’s piece in the report produced by Heidrick and Struggles and the Economist Intelligence Unit, Mapping Global Talent: Essays and Insights. The two paragraphs of text emphasized by the oversized call-out on Page 17 provided a hint, two years ago, of the trend our clients are seeing regarding younger employees.

So let’s accept these as valid concerns, based on facts, and let’s look at how they are going to drive the rapid adoption of social computing in the enterprise. We look at the first one in the rest of this blog; a future blog will look at the second concern.

What Is It Anyway?

Without getting into a definition of social networking, what does it provide? Well you can read a more detailed description here (What is Enterprise Social Networking Anyway?) but in brief a network of connections among people. That’s profound! What is important to understand, and the real essence of social networking, is how these connections compare to the connections we make in other ways, in meeting people face-to-face for example. Social networking connections are made more easily, are often passively made or at least suggested, are made across one or many characteristics and can be easily and quickly depicted visually. These characteristics stem from the fact that software services cull potential relationships between people based on individuals’ metadata and computing behaviors.

These relationships are made across many dimensions and are more numerous and more quickly made than those established in traditional interpersonal ways. Most of us are familiar with the idea of six degrees of separation (read about the original experiment); pick the right associations and often it only takes six links to connect one person with another person. The degrees of separation between sites on the internet are – care to guess? Go ahead, before reading further take a moment and guess. That’s right, three! Pick the right set of hyperlinks starting at any origin site and in three clicks you can land on any other web site – on average; at least that is what research has suggested. I think it’s safe to postulate then that the degrees of separation in an enterprise social computing network are between three and six and are likely closer to three than to six.

Enterprise Significance

What does this mean for an organization? It means that an employee in, say, the finance department in the main office can be tied to someone in the customer service department in a remote office with just a few links (not literal hyperlinks but simply connections between people). The prerequisite is the existence of the underlying mechanism to discover and publicize the commonalities that are the basis of those links – social networking in the enterprise.

The mere existence of social networking in an enterprise does not of itself add any real value though. The value derives from the use of that capability. The fact that an employee in the main office can be tied to someone in a remote office is valueless alone.

If you, hypothetically, as say the head of finance, are re-evaluating all corporate pricing models, the fact you can be tied to someone in a remote office is invaluable especially since that person was in charge, back in the year 2000, of the team that designed the pricing model for the multi-tiered customer support system still in use. That is a vital piece of information indeed. How would you, in your organization today, find the person in charge of a given project that ended eight years ago? How long would that endeavor take, assuming you could successfully complete it? If they’ve left the company would you ever find them? If you could, wouldn’t you want to talk with them?

Looking Forward

The previous example is oriented in the past though. How does social networking make a difference in a forward looking enterprise? We all know, because we have experienced it, that the chance conversations we have in hallways, at lunch and so on often yield valuable information. We have all had a success of some sort, large or small, because of just such a conversation. The problem of course is that these are chance conversations. The link is there whether it surfaces in the conversation or not. How many un-surfaced links do you wish you knew of today? My answer is simple; all of them! Social networking in the enterprise, designed to locate expertise, allows these un-surfaced links to be made explicit. It will help reduce, if not eventually eliminate, the almost universal applicability of “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing”.

Organizations are today using social networking to allow individuals to find internal experts located in different offices, different countries, and different subsidiaries. Social networking software that provides a list of suggested contacts or colleagues based on one’s behaviors facilitates locating the right people at the right time, not 2 months after a project’s finished. These activities are both active, searching the social networking data, and passive, receiving software-suggested contacts.

If you are assigned a new project, say writing a piece on the effects of increasing fuel prices on your business, what are some of your first steps? You probably start with research, most likely internet-based, possibly intranet-based. You might send some email messages to a few colleagues about your new project and so on. Basically there are a whole host of activities you undertake focused around fuel: fuel prices, fuel consumption, fuel efficiency, and so on. These are all “mineable” behaviors that can be used by background social networking software to find individuals in your enterprise who are known experts or who have similar behaviors.

Your Enterprise: Survive or Thrive?

Organizations are going to find many ways to address the changes and challenges discussed at the beginning of this blog. Those with the most strategic approach will be using social networks as a major component of that strategy. The ability to locate expertise and to do so quickly and efficiently is very important for an organization facing the loss of a large body of “know how” and mentally stored IP. Those same systems also address the ever increasing need for improved organizational efficiency and effectiveness.

Sharing knowledge and collaborating effectively are going to be the hallmarks of successful enterprises over the next decade or so. Those that don’t have the systems in place to maximize knowledge sharing and effective collaboration will merely survive. Those that make strategic use of systems like social networking will be positioned to thrive.

Twenty years ago, no one would have said that email was critical at that time to any enterprise’s long-term success. Forward looking companies in the late 1980s were already positioning themselves for enterprise email however. They saw what the future looked like ten years down the road. When that future arrived in five years, instead of ten, they were well ahead of their competition.

Today, no one would say that email isn’t critical.

Is social networking critical today to your enterprise? I can’t answer that. As we’ve seen it is for some. Will it be critical in the future? Absolutely! Is that future ten years down the road, or is it five? Or, is it even closer? Whatever, it’s coming; it’s time to start planning.

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