Businesses shouldn't be locking down social networking as a matter of principle. They should be embracing it and squeezing every opportunity out of it on a case-by-case basis.
So what really is social networking?
"Social networking" is one of those buzzwords that can mean a lot of different things. Wikipedia, which is an online, collaboration-based encyclopedia (for those who aren't aware or perhaps need a reminder in light of this article), defines a social network as a social structure "made up of individuals (or organizations) called 'nodes,' which are tied (connected) by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige."
By this definition, your Tuesday night beer league softball games are essentially an example of a social network. The left fielder calling the shortstop to talk about the strategy for an upcoming game is defined as social networking.
Social networking exists in the workplace. In fact, members of your company have been doing social networking for years just by attending trade shows, shaking a few hands, and passing around business cards. Your co-workers have meetings, make phone calls, and discuss business in passing through the halls. In the Web 2.0 world, social networking is done virtually via blogs, podcasts, or Web sites like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or the 200+ mainstream Web sites designed to bring people together.
What's the Perceived Problem Here?
I find it fascinating that some companies have outlawed social networking Web sites because employees should be doing "real work." Social networking sites have a stigma of being a wonderful place to waste time. Web filters are put in place no longer to stop access to pornography or gambling sites, but because Facebook is "evil." Corporate IT policies are now including language that forbids access to MySpace and Twitter.
Sure, there are blogs out there dedicated to Justin Bieber because a percentage of the population wants to read about him. There are Facebook and Twitter accounts filled with groundbreaking, revolutionary statements such as, and to quote the great Ron James, "I just washed my hair! Now I'm eating chips!"
I'm not saying you shouldn't patrol your network and keep the play time to a minimum. Business is business after all. Reading the mindless drivel your Uncle George posts on Facebook each hour can't help you pad the bottom line or get that ERP project finished ahead of schedule. In fact, reading Uncle George's posts probably brings your IQ level down a notch or two. However, you can't paint all social networking sites with the same brush.
Most companies have neither embraced the benefits of social networking Web sites nor even performed due diligence by investigating them, let alone asked the key question: "How can we exploit these tools to increase our productivity and effectiveness?"
Well, How Does It Help MY Business?
I'll offer a simple example. Essentially, I am authoring content for members of a social network of people all interested in the content on this Web site. Most of you have probably been here before, so I would consider this a community of technical people gathering for the common purpose of learning something to either help your business or develop your career.
As I write this article, I can quite easily plug my Web site at every given chance as long as it stays within the context of proving a related point regarding the subject matter, so I will do so. My Web site is a blog, and I will create a new post linking to this article published on MC Press servers. The readers of my blog will hopefully click on that link, and MC Press will have more traffic generated to its site. I'll also update my Twitter feed, which is also picked up and automatically posted on my LinkedIn account. This means potentially more traffic to my blog and this MC Press article, which makes my editor happy, which in turn allows me to do more writing. In true social networking fashion, I'll ask you folks to bookmark my blog and follow me on Twitter if you find my content useful. I'll do the same for you.
Is Viewing or Contributing to Social Networking Sites Really a Time-Waster?
My "day job" as essentially a business systems analyst has me focusing on many aspects of IBM i and Lotus Domino. TweetDeck is running in the background with LinkedIn and Twitter updates flashing on my screen every 30 seconds or so. Most of my connections on those two sites are business-related, the bulk being people who I've never met in person but who consist of everyday Lotus Notes users, Domino developers and administrators, IBM i gurus, and the like. I also follow content written by product designers, project managers, and even the key decision-makers for the products I use and abuse.
Some updates I catch; some I don't. With the sheer amount of information being transferred, it's like drinking from one fire hose while being blasted in the back by another one. But there are nuggets…really good ones. This is information-sharing at its finest and in a very simple fashion. You select what interests you and cherry pick the best elements of what data you are presented.
Anyone out there following the IBM Lotus enthusiasts on Twitter knows especially what I'm talking about. Those folks have embraced sharing and collaboration so much that it's second nature to them. They post quick tips, code snippets, and industry news. They post about the conferences and training events coming up and describe what they've learned at recent ones. I know what projects people are working on, what problems they're having, and who's offering good advice and who's not.
I didn't have to attend Lotusphere 2010 to learn about Project Vulcan, which I will get into shortly. I read about Project Vulcan on Ed Brill's blog. My IBM Business Partner didn't have to give me the skinny on the new 700 series Power Systems coming out this August because I already knew about it from Twitter feeds and a couple of blogs. Even the venerable IBM Redbooks organization is using Twitter, Facebook, and RSS feeds to make users aware of and disseminate highly technical information.
There's a tremendous amount of information out there. You just have to tap into it.
What's Project Vulcan?
First off, it's not anything to do with Star Trek. Ed Brill described it on his blog in January 2010 as "social analytics and business analytics combined and applied to industry-specific scenarios - making collaboration more focused and relevant." It also looks fairly similar to Facebook and Google Wave in terms of style, which is great for getting buy-in from the younger generation at your workplace.
The volume of information an enterprise could hold for a social network of users is immense. From what I can tell about Vulcan, it gives users a familiar face with which to effectively manage and collaborate on that information. Project Vulcan offers users the ability to consolidate and present inputs from its major application suite as well as to add business intelligence to the mix. It's a frightening combination that is truly IBM's tour de force. Imagine a social business network publishing enterprise ERP and business intelligence data, and then mix in Lotus Notes email, Quickr, Sametime, and Connections along with a way to effectively have it managed and shared.
Project Vulcan is on my list to sell to my boss even before it's released. I see how my business would benefit and know it would be a slam dunk to get our users on board.
At Least Have an Open Mind About It
Do the finance folks need access to Facebook? Probably not. I don't think anyone needs access to Facebook. But shutting down social networking sites like Tip'd or Investing Minds out of principle is flat wrong. That's online bigotry at its finest.
I remember in high school back in the '90s when we couldn't use a Web-based document as a valid reference for a term paper. Why? I will boldly say it was the ignorance of the decision-makers. A fear of the unknown and an unwillingness to see the tool for what it was. Back then, the Internet was not to be trusted. Nowadays, the Internet is the first place most people start looking for any type of research.
So when you see someone going to LinkedIn in your firewall logs, why not ask the question: "What do you get out of going to that Web site?" You may be surprised by the real business value your users are getting.