Social Networking Tools Try To Grow Up

Social software?  That’s where you meet your friends, post pictures of your trip, maybe even play a game of Scrabble (the fully legal Hasbro version of course).  It isn’t, necessarily, something that you would expect to find in an enterprise setting.

To be fully embraced by the enterprise, social software has to do more than simply provide a space for a profile and grow and interact with a contact list.  Recent newcomers to the social networking scene have struggled to gain ground.  Micro blogging tools such as Twitter, which allow for short messages to be broadcast to “followers” in a user’s network, are still in their infancy in terms of potential uses for the enterprise.  The majority of the use is in the consumer market, letting your network of friends know that you are walking your dog or that you just read a good article.

Mining the consumer market for tools that will be successful in the enterprise is hardly a new idea.  Instant messaging, once purely a consumer pursuit, is now indispensable in many organizations, and tools such as wikis and blogs are increasingly finding a home in corporations.  Outside the enterprise, business-focused social networks (LinkedIn and Xing come to mind) cater to knowledge workers looking to interact with one another.

Social software in the enterprise perhaps became legitimized when Lotus Software introduced Lotus Connections in 2007.  Lotus Connections is a business-focused social software package that brings social tools from the consumer market into the enterprise.  Connections incorporates tools for the creation of personal profiles that aid in expert location, the establishment of new contacts across an organization, and maintaining important relationships regardless of physical proximity.

Today we see several social networking products from the consumer side that are making the shift into the enterprise.  An interesting example of this kind of crossover is Socialcast.  Socialcast began in 2005 as a white label social networking software company, developing custom private social networks for the entertainment industry, places for fans to interact with each other, centered on a music artist or movie.  Recently, Socialcast remade itself as into a provider of enterprise-level social software, applying the lessons learnt in the consumer entertainment industry to a business setting.

Socialcast is a social network dropped on top of a company’s intranet.  In addition to building a basic profile, Socialcast also enables users to post questions and answers, ideas, and project status.  Keeping track of other knowledge workers is enabled through streams (in a similar way to Twitter) that can be fully customized.  A sales rep, for instance, may want to know what is happening with the rest of the sales team, so he can choose to see actions taken by the team.  He may not care about what is happening with HR, so he would not opt-in to display that information.  Expertise profiles of users are also automatically and dynamically built by a semantic engine, using what you look at, where you spend your time, and what applications you use to connect you to new content and relevant streams of information.

The real test, however, is to find value for the enterprise in social software, and then convince decision makers that social networking tools can make an impact and that they are more than toys.  Social networking tools have the potential to impact knowledge worker productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and if deployed in concert with other tools and in compliance with the one environment rule to enable friction free knowledge sharing, then tools such as Socialcast may well become part of the glue that holds an organization together.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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