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

Social networking tools are leaking into enterprises much the same way popular Internet collaboration tools such as instant messaging have done in the past. But users and experts caution planned corporate adoptions require lots of forethought to determine what tools and methods are right for individual companies.

Social networking tools, including blogs, wikis and bookmarking, are quickly becoming the latest Internet trend to seek an IT-sanctioned home behind the corporate firewall. Companies are intrigued by the possibilities but are cautious given the fact they have been fooled in the past by collaboration tools promising to help users share knowledge and be more productive.

"There is a long history of deploying collaboration and having it gather dust," says Andrew McAfee, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School.

McAfee was a featured speaker at the first Defrag Conference held this week in the US. The conference focused on tools that help pull together people and layers of perhaps unrelated data into something a user could define as knowledge.

McAfee says he is spending a lot of time talking with peers about social networking tools in the enterprise but that the discussion focuses on questions, most of which have yet to be answered.

Still some users are experimenting and they say they are finding benefits that enrich working relationships with colleagues scattered across an organization and fuel productivity.

"These tools give me a feeling of connectedness, a feeling of context," says Marie Bjerede, vice president and general manager at Qualcomm's Portland (Ore.) Design Center.

The company set up the Qualcomm Innovation Network (QIN), a playground for end-users such as Bjerede who are free to dream up ways to work smarter using social networking tools like blogs and wikis. QIN is a place employees can post ideas, which others can rate, and where employees can list themselves as subject matter experts available to answer questions from colleagues.

"There is a lot of innovation and thoughtfulness that is happening in our company of 10,000 people and it needs to be brought out of its silos," Bjerede says.

Her department started a wiki and individuals use it to share RSS feeds from their individual news readers. Users share feeds by clicking a button, which posts the feed's content directly to the wiki.

"We can go in and see what is interesting to others and that gives us a shared context," Bjerede says. The context is built by seeing what other people are reading, researching and writing about.

Far from being a feel-good concept, Bjerede says the context is important toward maintaining working relationships. "I can maintain connections on topics interesting to my organization with colleagues I don't normally have time to talk to," she says. Those people include employees in other Qualcomm departments.

Bjerede thinks these next-generation collaboration tools have a chance to succeed because users today are more comfortable with Web-enabled tools. "Wikis are not weird any more," she says.

And, she says, the tools address a problem that has persisted for years in that companies try to address information flow problems using a top down organizational structure. "Microsoft Project is not a very good communications tool. What we need to address is the problem of shared context," she says.

Creating that context or sphere of knowledge is a tricky issue, says Harvard Business School's McAfee. But he says social networking tools eventually push relevant information to the top of the heap over time.

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