Tapping the Positive from Social Networks for Enterprise Collaboration

By Matthew Sarrel  |  Posted 2010-11-09

Tapping the Positive from Social Networks for Enterprise Collaboration

Social networking and user-contributed content have taken the Internet by storm as evidenced by the popularity of MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, LinkedIn, Wikipedia and Twitter. Earlier this year, we looked at the security risks of social networking on public sites. But that's not the whole story. There's a revolution going on in enterprise collaboration software to sift out the good parts-for example, subject tagging and user profiles-of social networking and leave the threats and time wasters behind.

Enterprise collaboration projects are almost always risky propositions. Storing and sharing information, potentially across departments and across the world, holds unquantifiable rewards for the business. Yet, if these rewards can't be realized by individuals, then the project risks failure. Various techniques are used to increase user adoption-some good, such as appointing internal champions, and some bad, such as making use mandatory (with quotas)-but time and time again we've seen that the collaboration projects that succeed are those that provide users with advantages. And by advantages we mean things that make employees' lives easier such as locating the right person with the right expertise for a project, facilitating the management of that project, and providing a secure place to collaborate on that project using tools such as document management, shared workspaces, task lists and discussion boards.

How can an IT department increase the chances of launching a successful collaboration initiative? Use the tools that have taken the consumer world by storm. Social networking holds a lot of power and potential for online interaction, not just to better connect you with your long lost high school pals and provide you with a place to show off photos of your kids, but also to connect people with business goals in mind. These connections can be formed between anyone from your immediate teammates to geographically dispersed but still valuable colleagues in other parts of the company, or perhaps they can help you establish relationships with partners.

However, as helpful as they are for linking people to share information, public social networking sites are obviously the wrong place for an organization to build these networks and collaborate through them. Issues around control of information, regulatory compliance, governance and other critical aspects of information security abound. As a result, enterprise collaboration software such as Microsoft SharePoint, IBM Lotus Connections and Oracle WebCenter Suite (not to mention offerings from Cisco, Novell and Salesforce) has picked up more and more social features to harness the power of social networking-like interactions. There are many others that have jumped into this space with either software or SAAS (software-as-a-service) offerings, such as Google Apps, Box.net, Huddle.com and Igloo Software.

What Are These Social Features?


What Are These Social Features?

To succeed, your employees need to be able to leverage and build on the talents and knowledge of their co-workers. Web 2.0 technologies have given employees access and input to more information, content and expertise than ever before. In spite of tremendous gains in productivity, organizations are challenged to manage information and content overload while maintaining accuracy and relevance to help ensure that employees are connecting with the right content and expertise when they need it. Organizing and leveraging both explicit and tacit knowledge within your organization is an excellent goal for your social collaboration initiative.

Traditional collaboration tools that are document-centric are no longer sufficient to drive innovation and productivity. The ability to leverage voice, video, presence information and instant messaging is a proven enhancement to employee collaboration. In fact, according to Gartner, by 2014 social networking services will replace e-mail as the primary vehicle for interpersonal communication by as many as 20 percent of business users. If you're not on the social collaboration bandwagon, you will be left behind.

A key component of social software is the personal profile. User profiles contain detailed information about individuals and serve as a place to organize and display documents and other collateral that a user has contributed to the collaboration effort. Profiles enable workers to build their personal brands, share content and experiences, and, perhaps more importantly, find expertise and offer their own expertise to the rest of the business. For this reason, it's important to be able to search profiles by content tags. For example, if I'm about to start a project on social collaboration, I can search for "social" and "collaboration" and quickly contact everyone in my organization with the applicable skills to establish a cross-functional team.

Self-service and user-contributed content are key components of social collaboration software. IT doesn't have to get involved when I create a group, community or project site and invite my newly uncovered experts to join me. This community provides the dispersed team with a virtual space to privately share content, engage in discussion, and manage the project and deliverables. Using widgets, I can design a project dashboard where team members can track their own content, the content of others and project status. Including an RSS feed of related news or maybe the client's blog puts even more information at my team's fingertips. Sharing bookmarks to relevant external sites helps organize the team's research.

Other powerful tools include activity streams, status messages, microblogs and presence indicators. Theses provide quick and easy ways for employees to know what everyone is working on. These are much less formal (and therefore more timely) than a full status report. For example, I might set my status to "watching eWEEK Webinar on collaboration tools," and a co-worker could see that and make an impromptu decision to join me.

In some ways, a community profile serves the same purpose for groups of people that a user profile serves for individuals. Now everyone in the organization can search for and tap into the team's expertise and share their content and experiences. Because content is so much easier to find, employees can spend much less time reinventing material that already exists in other departments. Blogs and wikis are a great way to build this knowledge repository. Social tags can be added to any piece of content to describe the content. Tags can be searched using keywords, and tag clouds show the amount of activity within each tag.

And the best part is that when we're all done, the site still stands as a permanent record of the project. The content and expertise can be found and used by other teams (if we want it to be) that can also contribute to it. Role-based security policy management allows for proper governance and compliance with industry and government requirements.

Keys to Success


Keys to Success

Establishing a flourishing social collaboration site must be planned while keeping in mind the business objectives that will define success. Remember how public social network sites started-they were either a flash in the pan or took off like wildfire. Let's make sure you leverage the right solutions and strategies to burn the house down.

The key success factor will be employee engagement. Work with business units to set objectives that can be accomplished by increased, and perhaps less structured, employee interaction. Start with small proof-of-concept projects focused on specific business processes and clearly defined business goals.

Usability, information architecture, and look and feel play a huge role in employee acceptance. Take heavy cues from what works in the consumer social networking space. Remember, social collaboration is every bit a people play as it is an infrastructure play.

You're asking employees to work together across an organization using a new technology. Younger generations are used to living online, so they'll quickly make the adjustment to working online. Just keep them somewhat amused while providing them with a valuable tool for collaboration. Employees with a longer tenure within traditional companies may take a little longer to accept the solution, but they will do so when they understand they can find the right information, manage projects, track documents and quickly stay up-to-date with everything going on. Getting the "old guard" to use these tools can be an important way to gather the knowledge that's been stored within your organization before they retire.

Above all, allow employees to experience the benefits of social collaboration projects directly. The Belgian Federal Public Service Social Security is using Huddle.com to share documents as well as to organize conferences and meetings. Online discussions via group pages facilitate collaboration between colleagues from national and local public institutions, nongovernmental organizations, research centers and universities. Previously, during busy times, document sharing via e-mail caused mailboxes to exceed storage limits, and collaborators were frequently unable to share documents with their peers.

Employees, such as Manuel Paolillo, who serves as coordinator for the social security events during the Belgian Presidency, can be your greatest critics or your greatest backers. Paolillo enjoys the benefits of social collaboration and says: "With Huddle, I have access to all of my documents, at any time, from any location. I don't have to carry bags full of paper with me. In just a few clicks, I can show the latest version of my work to everyone in a meeting. If a document is modified, my colleagues can easily notify me. This is not only convenient, but also reassuring during busy periods."

Every staffer who learns the value of social collaboration for business becomes a de facto evangelist who can help bring other users on board. Tap into the power of the internal evangelist to drive adoption and acceptance. Find ways to encourage and incentivize participation. The success of social collaboration is directly tied to the amount of employee participation. Once everyone sees early adopters reaping rewards, you'll have the foundation laid for collaborative success.


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