Social networking finding friends in enterprise

Social networking tools are quickly becoming the latest Internet trend to seek an IT-sanctioned home behind the corporate firewall

McAfee says perplexing questions of what to do with social networking tools mirror what happened in companies 10 years ago when they started formulating their Internet strategy. McAfee says the questions now focus on Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0, a term he helped coin.

According to McAfee, social networking tools present three core questions to companies: What is the value of these tools? How do we pick the right tools? What is the managerial playbook for deploying these tools and achieving success?

He says a way to help answer those questions is by examining the strength of relationships, or ties, between workers. McAfee lays those ties out in concentric circles with a knowledge worker at the center. The inner circle represents the worker's strong ties, the next circle weak ties, the third potential ties and the fourth the absence of ties.

At each layer, he says, certain social networking tools and benefits can be expected. The "strong" ties circle includes important colleagues and is where wikis can foster collaboration and productivity gains that result in document creation.

The "weak" level ties are made up of users who may have worked together on a project before and provide information that doesn't overlap with the strong ties circle. Tools like Facebook work best here because they let users find out about each other and exploit human networks inherent in those tools, he says.

At the "potential" layer, a user can search for subject matter experts via blogs used to discuss expertise or projects, and at the "none" level the use of prediction market tools can form a collective intelligence by establishing the value of information.

McAfee says the result is powerful because it fosters quick connections and associations that might not ever occur otherwise. And it lets users combine human networks and gather a greater amount of unique information.

"This idea of tie strength seems to be a good foundation for helping companies and managers think through the important question of what are we going to do with 2.0 technologies," McAfee says.

More and more companies are going to be throwing around those questions even though McAfee cautions that while awareness is growing, adoption will lag far behind.

One reason for the increase awareness is that some companies may have the budget to examine new technologies.

"The available budget dollars for innovation in large enterprises is starting to increase again," says Brad Feld, managing director of early-stage venture capital funds Foundry Group and Mobius Venture Capital. Feld is not shy in expressing his belief that enterprise software is still a hot sector for investment.

IT projects that ate up innovation dollars such as e-commerce are complete and that those dollars are free to use in other areas, Feld says. He doesn't think specific social networking tools will fuel innovation spending but that the category in general is ripe for exploration.

"People are playing with consumer-side innovations at home and it is not just IT," Feld says. "So there is pressure to finally deal with the promise of collaboration and cross group communication."

There is a better chance for success because IT has tools to exploit such as browsers, desktop portability, wired and wireless connectivity and broadband access. "And we have had 20 years to make mistakes," he says.

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