Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networks have hundreds of millions of users combined. These solutions have grown exponentially on the strength of their messaging and communication applications - who doesn't want to at least occasionally share photos with a friend in Dubai or at least reconnect with old college roommates?
Recognizing their connectivity benefits and the need to appeal to younger workers used to utilizing Facebook and other social applications in their daily lives, the enterprise has begun to adapt these social networks to its own use, as a tool for collaboration between colleagues who may be a world away. However, these solutions' usefulness to business extends only so far - and not to mention, they remain decidedly unproven as business-marketing tools.
With those limitations of general-use social networks in mind, certain companies have already taken the next step and entered the market space with enterprise-centric social networks. IBM's Lotus Connections, LinkedIn, Socialtext, Jive Software (with its Social Business Software, or SBS, platform) and others have all been attempting to create their own variations on user- and enterprise-friendly social networking.
In a report published in the second quarter of last year, Forrester Research predicted that companies would spend $258 million on these solutions in 2008 - and that such tools would represent the biggest Web 2.0 expenditure by enterprise going forward.
So the trend is there - but in order to create a truly effective enterprise social network, what elements need to be present?
1. User-Friendly Look
Users will more readily accept a system with an already familiar look - hence the Facebook-like detailing on the newest version of Lotus Connections, social-networking software created by IBM.
"IBM deployed the solution in-house for several months before they brought the product out to market," Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Research, said in an interview. "It has a Facebook style look to it, but then they've included features such as team collaboration and communication, and built in a VOIP platform."
Also part of creating a friendly and familiar look is utilizing elements that users may be familiar with outside the enterprise experience, such as a personalized dashboard that shows users' latest status updates and page links - a model followed by, for example, Socialtext.
2. Business-Specific Applications
A layer of enterprise-specific software, such as analytics modules, is an essential for any enterprise social network; when users can utilize their network to not only communicate, but also actively collaborate on projects, "you start to solve very specific parts of the enterprise," Sam Lawrence, CMO of Jive, said in an interview.
While it may be tempting for the enterprise to simply rely on Facebook for social-networking needs, Lawrence adds, "When marketing needs to get quick answers and return the RFP in a way that's their best foot forward, you can't do that with a Facebook."
Use of Web 2.0 applications within an enterprise context, such as a company-specific wiki or CEO blogs, can also contribute to a spirit of open communication and collaboration. Pfizer, for example, uses its own Wikipedia-style application called Pfizerpedia.