Social-Networking Vendors Set Their Sights on the Enterprise

A panel of experts gathered in New York this week to talk about the importance of social networks in the enterprise. Software from such vendors, normally associated with online dating and sites such as, is increasingly being used to help sa

If youre like most IT professionals, when you hear the word "network" youre likely to picture a web of computers or looming security threats—certainly not your social circle. But a panel of experts gathered in New York this week to dispel that perception and instead talk about the importance of social networks in the enterprise.

The panelists, all founders of social-networking start-ups, claim their technology—popular in online dating and Web sites such as—also can help businesses boost the bottom line.

"Relationships are undoubtedly one of the most valuable and least-visible parts of a business," said panelist Antony Bryden, president of startup Visible Path Corp. "The goal is figuring out how and where these relationships can be applied to business problems."

New York-based Visible Paths software mines employee e-mail and IM accounts, calendars, and address books for contacts. It then analyzes and maps the networks of relationships revealed within those resources. The goal: to help enterprise salespeople tap into their colleagues connections.

"The department that feels the greatest pain from lack of visibility into relationships is sales," Bryden said. But, he added, human resources departments also can use the technology to scope out candidates.

Visible Path also weighs the strength of the connection. If there are multiple connections, the software suggests the strongest one. The tool gauges relationship strength by analyzing such factors as degree of connection as well as consistency, frequency and length of communications. In addition, the system can identify which employees in the past have provided connections that have closed deals. Bryden says this type of analysis is essential for any social-networking tool. "Any solution that doesnt have weighting is going to drown as networks become more saturated," he said.

Bryden acknowledges that privacy is a concern. "For this to become widespread, a company has to deliver the highest standard of privacy," he said.

Visible Paths software gives each individual "total control over his or her relationships," he said. For example, users can choose to omit contacts from Visible Paths system at any time. They also can anonymously deny requests for connections or ask for more information before deciding. Bryden said it would be very difficult to identify a person who wont reveal a contact because "these networks get very complex, very quickly."

As part of its enterprise push, Visible Path offers integration with standard applications such as Microsoft Corp. Outlook and IBM Lotus Notes, as well as CRM (customer relationship management) systems. Visible Path partners with sales force automation vendor and plans to announce similar partnerships with the launch of its product in the first half of this year.

Visible Path has been beta testing its technology for the past six months in midsized companies.

Next page: One saleswomans experience using Visible Path to mine for contact gold.