Microsoft Goes Facebook on Its Employees

Could TownSquare lead to SharePoint socialization?

BOSTON-Microsoft's Office Labs team, a testbed for ideas from company employees, is treating attendees of the Enterprise 2.0 conference to a sneak preview of a Facebook-like social network the company is working on to help employees keep tabs on each other.

The network is called TownSquare, and while the project will exist at Microsoft internally, the company will use it as the basis for future feature functionality in the next version of the SharePoint collaboration software, Bram Paperman, program manager for Office Labs in the United States, told eWEEK June 11.
The benefit is obvious for a company of Microsoft's size, even if the in-house project is a little curious. Microsoft, the software power at this show, said it inked several deals with social software providers to provide hooks and whole-hog integrations into SharePoint.
What will happen to those relationships if Microsoft socializes SharePoint on its own? Food for thought for Awareness, WorkLight, Telligent Systems and the others.
Paperman said the genesis of TownSquare came from requests from the SharePoint team, which wanted to know what a social networking news feed similar to the Facebook News Feed would look like in the enterprise.
Currently, information in SharePoint is surfaced through RSS feeds and alerts. But if a company has thousands of employees using SharePoint (a Wachovia spokesperson admitted to having 60,000 users on Microsoft Office SharePoint Services in a presentation here June 11), it is impossible to go sift through all of those sites for new content.
Paperman said Office Labs aggregated all of the SharePoint information into one central news feed. Users can "toggle" people in to the system. For example, Paperman has added coworkers in TownSquare. Every time they upload a SharePoint document or do a wiki change or blog post, he will be notified.
As with Facebook on the social side, Paperman also receives news about colleagues' birthdays and promotions. There are picture profiles of participants.
To jump-start participation in TownSquare, Office Labs bootstrapped it by taking Microsoft's SharePoint Colleagues automatically and indexing every site those users are associated with to provide preliminary content on the home page.
For example, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer may not be on TownSquare, but because he is a SharePoint user, he will receive an e-mail of an employee congratulating him on his anniversary. As with Facebook, he can click on a link and respond. "We wanted to get some viral marketing through that," Paperman said.
Compared with robust platforms like MySpace or Facebook, TownSquare offers bare-bones functionality, but like some kind of Wikipedia force, it has become incredibly viral since it launched in January, with more than 8,000 employees joining the network. Paperman said 2,000 people are consistently using it.
Paperman said Office and SharePoint teams often come to Office Labs to get "innovatively perceived" features into Microsoft Office applications.
"They will come to us with an idea that they find compelling and interesting and we perform experiments around it," he said.
Other projects in Office Labs include Search Commands, an Office 2007 add-in that lets users find commands, options, wizards and galleries in Word, Excel and PowerPoint, and Community Clips, a portal for viewing, sharing and discussing screencasts on Microsoft Office products.