Chattering at the Water Cooler
I like the idea of using a secure, professional-topics-only social networking application at work. This service isn't Facebook. The terms of service currently prohibit having multiple accounts and the effort needed to segregate my friends and family from my colleagues is impossible. As I wrote at the beginning of the year in a column entitled "Double Identity," it's getting harder to control "the growing overlap between my personal and corporate [online] identity."
There is an alternative to Facebook in the enterprise and that's Chatter, from Salesforce.com. I've seen Chatter in action and I like what I see. But I would like to see some things added to Chatter to make it easier to access everyone with whom I wish to chat.
Let's start with the first order of business: cost. I'm fine with my company paying $15 per month, per user for me to have access to the Chatter client. Chatter is available at no additional cost for licensed Salesforce.com customers who are already using an edition of Sales or Service Cloud. So, the first order of business then is to understand that everyone who wants or needs to participate in a professional social networking environment needs to pay for the application.
Second, I'm fine with the company owning the data. I think there is a place for professional social networks such as LinkedIn, but these are tools for individuals-not corporate advancement. The reason there are so many "free" social networking services available is the data and the people providing the data are donating huge amounts of labor and product. This labor and product can be sold or rented in all sorts of ways that most corporations would shudder to consider. What company wants competitors to know that your sales team is suddenly interest in "Prospect A?" For that matter, Prospect A likely doesn't want the attention either.
Third, the next step is facilitating communication between those outside the company and those inside. For example, competitors shouldn't get alerted to interest in Prospect A through social networking, but your partner network likely should be.
Finally, social networking inside a professional context could be a radical advance in organizational communication. Instead of sending an e-mail blast to "all," a sales person could ask a question in a social networking stream. If someone in the organization can provide a quick answer, then problem solved. It's not clear to me that social networking ("best effort" networking, if you will) will replace formal business structures for ensuring that business problems are resolved in a methodical matter ("guaranteed delivery"). It is clear that social networking could certainly speed up things.
Valuable information is revealed as the social actions of employees moves the focus of attention throughout your organization. As sales, customer service, engineering, marketing and manufacturing interact, anomalies can be revealed. Instead of letting all the great trend or spike data get captured by a "no cost" social network outside your organization, now might be the time to use business-class social networking tools to promote cross-department communication and rapid-response problem solving. After all, you can't manage what you can't measure.