With the actual water cooler a thing of the past, the virtual water cooler is becoming increasingly important. Companies are turning to applications that provide a Facebook-like experience behind the security of the firewall.
It's a humble appliance, but, without it, workplace culture doesn't stand a
chance. It's the water cooler, where employees meet to open up about themselves
and their work.
But as companies disperse operations globally and encourage employees to
telecommute, the old-time water cooler is getting to be a lonely place. What's
needed is a virtual water cooler-a browser-based application that will enable
employees to easily find each other to exchange information and advice.
The concept isn't new. Facebook, LinkedIn and others have been connecting
people for years. But many companies frown on or even ban usage of these
potentially distracting and insecure tools during company time. In their place,
enterprises are running applications with similar capabilities securely behind
their corporate firewalls.
"Document-centric collaboration by itself just isn't enough. You need
to have something people-oriented right alongside it," said Oliver Young, an
analyst at Forrester Research.
Gartner analyst Carol Rozwell said businesses are clamoring for this kind of
software, which straddles the categories of social networking and enterprise
learning. "There is pent-up demand among learners for easy-to-use tools that
simplify the process of connecting a person with the need to know to a person
who knows," said Rozwell.
Social media expert and author Paul Gillin concurred. "Formerly, people were
forced to give up their knowledge, but with social networks, people willingly
give up their knowledge. The great business opportunity is behind the firewall
because simple tools can be used to replace more complicated collaboration
tools," said Gillin.
Although Facebook and LinkedIn have so far avoided tailoring their products
for corporate use, other vendors-ranging from collaboration software giants
Microsoft and IBM to obscure startups to
established wiki vendors-are scrambling to fill the void.
In fact, Gartner estimated annual spending on enterprise social software to
be $280.2 million in 2007, increasing to $1.06 billion in 2012.