If youre like most IT professionals, when you hear the word "network," youre likely to picture a Web of computers or looming security threats, not a social circle. But a panel of experts gathered in New York this month to dispel that perception and discuss the importance of social networks in the enterprise.
The panelists, founders of social networking startups, said their technology, which is popular on sites such as Friendster.com, 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 upstart Visible Path Corp., in New York. "The goal is figuring out how and where these relationships can be applied to business problems."
Visible Paths software mines employee e-mail and instant-messaging accounts, calendars, and address books for contacts and analyzes and maps the networks of relationships. 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.
Visible Path weighs the strength of the connection, and if there are multiple connections, suggests the strongest one. The software gauges this by analyzing such factors as degree of connection as well as consistency, frequency and length of communications. The system can identify which employees have provided connections in the past that have resulted in closed deals. Users can choose to omit contacts from Visible Paths system. They can anonymously deny requests for connections or ask for more information before deciding.
Visible Path offers integration with standard applications such as Microsoft Corp.s Outlook and IBMs Lotus Notes, as well as CRM (customer relationship management) systems. Visible Path partners with sales force automation vendor Salesforce.com Inc. and plans to announce other partners with the launch of its product next quarter.
One saleswoman who has been testing Visible Path for two months said the software has streamlined her work. "Its been very effective in identifying colleague relationships, friends and neighbors," said the saleswoman, who requested anonymity. "This was happening before, of course, but this is just making it easier. It was all manual before; now you can do it off your desktop."
Her company, which offers hosted applications for financial services companies, uses Salesforce.com as a CRM system. With Visible Path, "I can just click on a name in Salesforce, and it will ask me if I want Visible Path for that person and it will automatically search," she said.
She has made about a dozen Visible Path-assisted phone calls and has seen the companys network of potential contacts grow. Based on 90 employees in the network, she said there are now 750 people within one degree of separation from her, 25,000 within two degrees and 75,000 within three degrees.
Another approach to social networking is from ZeroDegrees Inc. Mark Jeffrey, vice president of product development at the West Hollywood, Calif., startup, said he thinks business networking should begin with the individual. "Relationships belong to individuals," Jeffrey said at the New York panel discussion. "If a company dictates to me that I have to hand over my contacts, that doesnt make me comfortable."
ZeroDegrees, which this month was acquired by IAC/InterActiveCorp, offers a hosted service where users can create their own business networks. There are about 280,000 users in the network, said Jeffrey.
ZeroDegrees offers integration with Outlook, and its software can scan a users Outlook account and make recommendations about which users should be added to the network.
Jeffrey acknowledged that there may be a limit to using social networking technologies for business. "Salespeople are mavericks, gunslingers; theres no way theyll let people get ahold of their contacts."
Although few attendees at the social networking event disputed the usefulness of social networking, some questioned how these companies will bring in revenues. ZeroDegrees, which currently does not charge users, eventually plans to sell subscriptions to individuals for about $10 to $20 a month per user. Visible Path plans to offer its software as a service, charging companies platform licensing fees that start at $20,000 per year.