The Business of Social-Networking May 2011
Social networking is one of the major developments in software in the past decade. Initially a consumer phenomenon, social networking soon bled over into the workplace as colleagues became connected to one another through sites such as Facebook and accessed the sites at home and at work. Business conferences now routinely supply attendees with suggested tags so that the attendees can post items on Twitter during the conference (some conferences even have screens showing rolling twitter feeds). Many enterprise-specific social-networking services now exist and have become a key focus of many enterprise 2.0 software providers.
Social-networking services vary but typically have some key features at heart:
- Finding and becoming "friends" with other users and seeing a newsfeed of items that these friends post
- Posting items such as status updates, links to websites, videos, pictures, and locations (sometimes "check-in"s) to a personal page and newsfeed
- Commenting on other people's postings
- Using security settings to enable postings to be viewable to friends only, to wider networks, or (perhaps) to the general public.
Some social-networking services have also become application platforms—allowing third parties to create software that runs within the social-networking service. In many cases, developers can also publish to social-networking services content that originates from other applications. In addition, various applications and services can leverage social-networking accounts to enable a single sign-on feature (similarly, as long as a user is logged into Facebook the user does not need to log in again to gain access to another website that uses the log-in service from Facebook).
Even in early-adopter organizations, enterprise social-networking software is fairly new technology. Enterprise social networking tends to trail consumer social networking in technology developments. So, for example, although mobile social networking has arrived in the enterprise, location-based social networking (publishing one's location) has yet to develop. As with other social-networking technologies, location-based social networking is likely to begin with use of consumer services for work purposes and be followed by enterprise-specific products.
Blurring of Work and Consumer Services
Organizations need to learn to work with their own enterprise social-networking applications and the consumer-oriented applications that their workers use. 7-Eleven may have chosen Yammer as its official tool (the company made an announcement of enterprise-wide adoption in May 2011), but many of its employees will be connected to one another via Facebook and other consumer-oriented services—and sometimes these connections will lead to work-based conversations, just as happens when coworkers take lunch together or go for drinks after work. Approaches to consumer-oriented social networking can be complex. Should enterprises adopt a laissez-faire attitude to consumer-oriented services? Actively encourage use of software and devices that encourage communication and collaboration? Ban them (as far as possible)? Or create formal policies for use? In the future, workplace and consumer software is likely to blur further as employees bring increasingly powerful smartphones into the workplace and the capabilities of consumer social-networking services grow.
Geosocial networking—including services that allow users to publish their current location to friends—is a current example of the issues enterprises face. Consumer-oriented location-based social-networking services could have positive or negative consequences for enterprises. For example, learning that a salesperson is in the office of a certain client could enable a colleague to pass on some important information relating to the meeting. Conversely, the salesperson could inadvertently share this location information with a competitor.
Mining of Social Data
Data mining of social networks is another application area to watch and one that could prove increasingly important to enterprises in the future. Analyzing social-data traffic in enterprises could help managers discover silos and information strongholds that connect inadequately to the rest of the organization, bottlenecks in information flow, and untapped resources in the form of very well-connected employees who may be low on the organization chart.
Opportunities for enterprise social-data mining will likely be greatest in cases in which an organization relies on networks for workflow and everyday operations, as in the cases of large-scale SAP implementations, organizations whose employees are very frequent users of enterprise social networks and customer-support forums, and software-development teams that constantly update their project-management groupware tools. In such cases, analyzing enterprise social graphs, collegial graphs, and message content could become a major approach—perhaps the major approach—to measuring effectiveness of future organizations.
Automation and Future Evolution of Social Networking
A key development to watch in enterprise social networking is increasing automation. Most of today's social networking updates are manually generated, but a great deal of electronic information exists that could be leveraged for social networking—the idea is particularly compelling in the enterprise where time efficiency and ready access to information about coworkers' activities and availability are important. In the future, I may see a list of my project team, complete with automated updates about team members' current locations, their agendas for the day, and their current work activity. News about product shipments and service-delivery milestones could automatically generate from data entry into ERP software, resulting in interested parties' subscribing to relevant feeds sharing the news and a sense of accomplishment.
Location information is perhaps the beginning of existing electronic data that social-networking systems can utilize. I expect that within five years enterprise social-networking software will be leveraging information from a variety of software applications and data sources, including calendars, productivity software, conferencing tools, and location technologies. Software may also make use of security cameras and webcams to determine whether someone is physically at the desk and whether that person has anyone with him or her. Increasingly, this type of status information will be integrated into unified communications software—blurring the boundaries between social networking and general calls and messaging. Social-networking software integrated into unified communications will lead to new types of call and message filtering—potentially making cold calling a figment of the past.
Also, within five years, social-networking software will have become the de facto data source for day-to-day information about coworkers' activities and information about expertise and schedules across an organization (for example, for project planning). Most workers will manage multiple social-networking accounts and (as I discuss above) organizations will need to manage the growing use of consumer-oriented social-networking services for ad hoc work use. Perhaps the equivalent of "likes" on Facebook could pervade enterprise social networks. Enterprises might even provide incentives for user-created content that is useful (one hopes not just amusing or stimulating) to a number of employees.
Within ten years, social-networking software will likely be fully integrated into all other collaboration software and be a regular source of data for software that is staffing projects, providing background information about people for a Web conference, or looking for potential candidates for promotion. Eyeglass displays may also augment face-to-face meetings with social-networking data, potentially using face-recognition technology to identify individuals.