7 Things Needed for an Enterprise Social Network

By Nicholas Kolakowski  |  Posted 2009-03-12

7 Things Needed for an Enterprise Social Network

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.

Multiple Communication Systems

3. Multiple Communication Systems

A variety of communication channels within the enterprise social network can speed the pace of business and potentially lead to cost reductions. 

"A super simple but effective way to develop collective intelligence within a knowledge-intensive firm is to get people sharing their reading and writing through Enterprise RSS, bookmarking and blogs." Lee Bryant, analyst with Headshift, a London-based social-computing consultancy, wrote in a blog posting. "This is an order of magnitude cheaper than traditional internal information sharing, newsletters and research."

According to Bryant, harnessing the power of instant-messaging is another vital element of an enterprise social network.

"There is a lot of interest right now in replicating the success of micro-messaging systems such as Twitter within the enterprise," he wrote in the same blog. "This has all the benefits of instant messaging with the advantages of being embedded in your working groups and networks but with less interruption cost."

4. Security

As previously documented by eWEEK, Facebook and other general social-networking sites have been known for their potential security risks, with user data vulnerable to attackers.

Any enterprise-specific social network, therefore, will have to be secure on a number of fronts, including protecting against any vulnerabilities found in third-party applications integrated into the network.

Facebook already requires that developers, before they can create anything for the site, comply with policy guidelines that prohibit malicious activity. Developers for enterprise-based social networks could conform to the same guidelines.

5. Scalability

According to a report issued by Access Markets International (AMI) Partners of New York, the number of small businesses that utilize social networking services will double in 2009, to roughly 600,000 organizations. On top of that, around 500,000 small businesses will use a social-networking solution in their advertising or promotional efforts.

Of course, if everything goes well, those small businesses then turn into medium-sized businesses and from there into truly massive enterprises. As the number of employees expands, any social network layered on top of the organization will need to scale appropriately.

Interact with Legacy Software

6. Interact with Legacy Software

Plus, in order to provide the best possible utility and collaboration potential, any enterprise social network will need to integrate with a business's previously existing software.

"Web 2.0 tools enter a crowded space full of legacy software and processes that are difficult to displace and with which Web 2.0 software must integrate to be fully effective," G. Oliver Young, an analyst with Forrester, wrote in an April 2008 report on the enterprise and Web 2.0.

"Integration with lightweight applications like e-mail and Excel," he added, "as well as heavier applications like Web content management suites, campaign management software, portal software and customer relationship management systems, must all be addressed over time."

7. Video and Multimedia

The enterprise communicates both internally and externally though means that range from video to podcasts to PowerPoint. General social networks have been ramping up their ability to archive and transmit user photos and video, and enterprise versions will doubtlessly need to do the same.

The inclusion of a video module is something already done by a few enterprise social-networking solutions, including Jive Software. If an executive wishes to post a video clip viewable to everyone in the company, for example, such a module may present a more effective or secure solution than posting it up for the world to see on YouTube.

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