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Start your own social network

Start your own social network – Many employers view social networks as time-wasting nonsense. Can building your own workplace social network deliver all of the productivity and none of the problems? Simon Rumble finds out.

Social networking gets a bad rap with business owners, particularly if your business includes Gen Yers who seem to carry on conversations across five different communication platforms, all while supposedly working.

Even so, you can harness the power of social networks to enhance information sharing and cross-functional collaboration inside your business. However, it’s important to keep it focused on business results and ensure everyone participates, rather than just the youngsters who came of age with the technology.

Online social networks are really a digital update of the Rolodex, allowing you to keep in touch with your network of professional and personal contacts. They also act as a kind of squelch button to keep out some of the digital noise, focusing you on the people you’re interested in while keeping out the noise from those who aren’t as relevant.

The key feature is the network of people and a set of preferences about who can contact you and whose updates you will see automatically. What is carried over the social network depends on the particular technology being used.

A typical session on a social networking system like LinkedIn or Facebook will start by reading a bunch of quick status updates (micro-blog posts) from friends you’ve subscribed to, where friends share what they’re up to, working on, or thinking about. Friends may have shared photos or calendar entries, or updated some element of their profile such as their relationship status, where they are physically or current job. You might need to deal with ‘friend requests’, people asking to link up to you because they know you and want to join your network. Setting someone up as a friend might involve deciding what level of connection you want to share with the person, how much interaction you want with the person, and which things you want to see from the person.

What this all adds up to is replicating some of the social networks you see in the real world, while also allowing faster broadcasts of information out to your social network. One of the important benefits is that you’ll be more aware of what’s happening in your social circle: what your friends are working on and what’s of interest to them.

In the business context, this can replace weekly work-in-progress meetings or group emails, and by networking outside your own team you can keep in touch with other people around the organization. This cross-functional networking means people in the organization are more aware of goings-on elsewhere, allowing better coordination and quick formation of ad hoc groups for specific tasks.

Big companies piling in

Some big companies have been experimenting with using social media. Social technology and knowledge sharing expert at IBM, Karen Tipping, says the company dipped into social networking some years ago with blogs and wikis.

“This cross-functional networking means people in the organization are more aware of goings-on elsewhere”

“That was our entry point and they’re heavily used within the business,” she says. “We’ve had 70 to 80% adoption within IBM as primary methods of sharing information among teams and broader groups. Business social research at IBM can be done on a large scale with 400,000 employees around the globe and the consulting and R&D focus often requiring short-term ad hoc groupings of people.”

More recently IBM has built a more network-oriented application, Lotus Connections, which combines a staff directory with social networking features. Each user sets up his or her own profile, with information about interests, skills, and location. Users can add tags to their profiles to help categorize themselves, and they can also categorize each other.

This gives the perspective of how people see themselves and how others perceive them. Advanced search allows anyone within IBM to find the specific skills or interests for something they want to look at. Micro-blogging status updates and subscriptions are included, giving quick updates on what the user is currently up to, broadcast out to an extended network.

Business social systems can also allow the creation and use of ad hoc group spaces.

“It’s about moving away from an email-centric work process to a more activities-based way of managing tasks,” says Tipping. “Emails, files, wikis, and documents can be integrated on a timeline, with elements of status worked through the whole thing.

“These kinds of features are more suited to short-term activities, pulling in people with the right skills for a particular task, making it more suitable to today’s fast-moving work requirements.”

Problems

Business social networking isn’t without its problems. The problem with using public social networks such as Facebook is that most bosses don’t want their staff answering questionnaires promising to match their personality to a movie character during work time. There can also be problems with the accessibility of the technology.

Georgina Swan, consumer interactivity manager at consumer advocacy group CHOICE, explains that the organization has dipped its toes into social technology with mixed results.

“We trialed wikis but never really went beyond proof of concept because most free wiki software (at the time) didn’t have a good rich text editor and many people found it difficult without one,” she says.

Training can help overcome resistance.

“It’s a new way of sharing, and what’s missing is really good education around what this technology is and how it is used,” says Tipping.

The key to most social software is to ensure everyone is engaged and actively using the system. Missing out on even a small proportion of important staff members risks crippling collaboration, with generational differences being most pronounced.

IBM acknowledged this issue with a bold reverse-mentoring program, with young new recruits showing executives how to get the most out of social networking systems.

“It’s about saying the executive team wouldn’t necessarily know about these kinds of new technologies,” says Tipping. “Leadership support and buy-in are very important; if someone wants to use the wiki and the manager doesn’t want to, it’s not going to work.”

Getting started

One of the quickest and most productive places to start with social media is an internal wiki, allowing information to be collaboratively maintained.

All organizations have a body of useful knowledge, often shared informally. Things as prosaic as the procedure to unjam the photocopier are ideal to go into the company wiki, with users encouraged to chip in useful tips.

If you have the IT resources and a server with available space, you can install your own wiki software. Some wiki software is very simple, requiring only a web server, but the more sophisticated software has better editing interfaces, which is very important in getting less technical staff using the system. There are hundreds of wiki software packages, ranging from free through to very expensive. See Wikipedia find software to run your own wiki.

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