Social Networking in the Enterprise?

I've written a lot about the consumerization of IT in recent years because I feel that this movement is, for better or worse, running roughshod over our industry and changing the workplace in dramatic ways. Last week, I discussed an interesting new aspect of the consumerization of IT with Microsoft. Although it might seem ludicrous on the surface, so did allowing employees to connect their MP3 players and then smartphones to our managed PCs and internal networks. And this trend, at least, could help make workers more efficient if things play out the way Microsoft expects.

I'm referring of course to a coming generation of social networking functionality that will invade our enterprise systems and allow employees to interact with each other in ways that mimic the features of popular, consumer-oriented services such as Facebook.

Well, not exactly the same. It's unlikely that some of the more tedious Facebook memes, such as posting descriptions or photos of lunch, will ever catch on in these environments. But you get the idea: We as individuals access social networks such as Facebook regularly, interacting with friends and family in virtual ways, sharing information, and keeping up-to-date with what's going on in the world. Why can't we do so at work?

There are two obvious barriers to such adoption. From the standpoint of users, asking them to participate in yet another service that looks and works like something they do in their free time might seem like overload, and might be resisted. And from the standpoint of the workplace, are you kidding me? The very idea seems ridiculous.

Or at least it does until you understand the impetus behind this trend. Whereas consumer-oriented social networking services are all about sharing, the driver for enterprise social networking is task completion. It's not another virtual water cooler. It's another way to get things done, to find the people or resources in the organization who can help you complete a project. It's a tool, not a time waster.

"All the elements needed for employees to communicate effectively are there," Microsoft senior director of SharePoint product management Jared Spataro told me last week. "And not just employees, but also customers. This approach has two phases, requiring a connected experience and a connected, underlying platform. Both are important. And both are basically in place now."

If you know anything about SharePoint today, and related products such as Microsoft Outlook, you know that the basics for this infrastructure are in fact in place today. SharePoint 2010, for example, supports My Site profiles for users, news feeds, activity feeds, people search, blogs, wikis, and integration with the Outlook Social Connector, a "final piece of the puzzle" tool that lets users rate, tag, and collaborate across social networking services, not just SharePoint but also LinkedIn, Facebook, and others. Microsoft tells me that others are building on this infrastructure -- such as Newsgator, which offers microblogging and community features on top of SharePoint.

(I wrote a bit about SharePoint's social networking features last year on the SuperSite for Windows.)

Microsoft wouldn't discuss its future direction for SharePoint, but my suspicion is that the next version will more formally support enterprise-class social networking functionality, thus formalizing this notion and taking it from theory to mainstream. But some aren't waiting on Microsoft. I was surprised to discover that some companies are already dipping their toes in the water of enterprise social networking. And I was interested to discover why, and what they were doing.

According to a Harris Interactive study commissioned by Microsoft to discover these very facts, social networking is at a tipping point in the enterprise, with 59 percent of decision makers believing that social networking features such as collaboration, productivity gains, cost savings, and more make this technology essential going forward; 41 percent aren't convinced.

The biggest impediments to adoption are security, of course, followed by concerns about integration with existing systems, compliance, and governance, although I have to think that plain old suspicion of this technology factors pretty highly in decision makers' minds as well.

Actual deployments are still fairly rare, of course, and of those that are in fact trying social networking technologies, many are doing so in limited trials or pilot programs. (Microsoft has provided case studies for both TELUS and Electronic Arts, both of whom adopted Office and SharePoint early on and continue to lead the way in truly taking advantage of these products' vast feature sets.) Some pilots are driven by in-company enthusiasts who've seen the future and are trying to convince others of the value. It's early days.

Still, social networking in the enterprise an interesting idea, one that isn't as silly as it seems at first blush. And an IT-focused part of me sort of enjoys the notion of turning the consumerization of IT on its head and using familiar services to enable better employee efficiency. Will it really take off? I suspect it will require more than new software, and that many will resist. But I'm curious what your take on this is. Please drop me a note and let me know whether social networking has any place in your business.

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