Social Networking in Business: An Update

Here’s the gist of the presentation I gave last week entitled “A Whirlwind Tour of Social Networking” in London at the Online Information 2006 conference hosted by the congenial David Gurteen.

Social Networking Applications (SNAs) are tools and technologies that make it easier to identify, meet, connect, share information and collaborate with other, appropriate people. They can help you discover (or rediscover) and locate the right people, just in time, build “know-who” maps and directories of expertise, invite and permission people to join networks, connect (real-time synchronously or asynchronously) with various people using various appropriate communication media, manage relationships across those media, and collaborate and share content with people in your networks.

Much of the current emphasis in new SNA development is in precisely those areas (finding people, virtual presence and co-development) where the first generation of applications was most disappointing, and there are some promising signs.

The greatest challenge has been making the tools simple and intuitive enough that they become ubiquitous, like the telephone and e-mail, instead of used only by those on the right side of the digital divide (tools like Skype, forums and blogs) or by an even smaller number of power users (tools like wikis and the more sophisticated co-authoring and collaboration tools). Unfamiliarity, social awkwardness, complexity (to the point some of them require extensive training), our ineffective interpersonal tools (some of us don’t know how to introduce ourselves well in person, let alone virtually), and the fact that those we want to connect with often aren’t online (and in some cases aren’t even known) all mitigate against widespread use of these tools.

These principles, which apply to all social interactions, dictate our ability to establish relationships effectively online:

  • Mutual trust, respect, context, and honest, transparent self-disclosure are all prerequisites to good relationships.
  • Relationships require a conversational icebreaker: you can’t just launch into them.
  • First impressions matter (many potentially important relationships were ruined by missteps right off the bat).
  • Information conveyed by observation (body language, tone of voice) counts more than that conveyed by our words: we are judged by what we do, not what we say.
  • Collaboration is the miracle glue of relationships: people who have worked together on something that engages them forge powerful relationships of trust and respect.
  • Every interaction online carries with it the burden of the entire network: “I appreciate what you’re talking about, but how am I going to explain this and work it out with A, B and C”, and “I’m not going to confide that to anyone I haven’t met face to face”. Openness has its downside.

Ultimately, social networks are complex, adaptive systems. Tools that are ‘merely complicated’ cannot hope to accommodate them, so sometimes the best that can be hoped is that the tool will be ‘invisible’ and not impede relationship-building and collaboration.

Here’s a list of types of SNAs, organized by ‘taskonomy’ (what they’re used for); the Examples given are free except as noted otherwise:

People-Connector Tools Examples Useful for Identifying & Finding This Kind of People What You Can Do Now
People-Finders LinkedIn, Ryze, Orkut, Facebook1 People meeting selected search criteria or having a specified affinity with you Set up a just-in-time canvassing system2
Social Network Mappers InFlow People connected with others in an organization Read The Hidden Power of Social Networks3
Proximity Locaters DodgeBall People you want to meet who are physically in your proximity Use them to enable serendipitous meetings within your company4
Affinity Detectors NTag (not free) People with whom you have shared interests who are physically in your proximity Use them at conferences where most attendees don’t know each other5
Social Publishing & Info-Sharing Tools Examples Useful for Publishing & Finding This Kind of Information What You Can Do Now
Journals Blogs, Podcasts Context-rich stories, reviews, and personal articles Pilot blogs among those in the company already maintaining some sort of ‘journal’6
Social Bookmarkers Links to others’ stories, reviews and articles (for those who don’t have the time or interest to write their own blog) Use to get standing notification of new articles on subjects of interest to your organization
Photo Journals Flickr Personal photos and visualizations  –
Memediggers Digg, Reddit Links to stories on ‘hot’ topics  –
Product Evaluators Wize, ThisNext, Insider Pages Consumers’ evaluations of commercial products and services Check out what potential customers are saying about the competition
Personal Diaries/ Music/ Video Sharers MySpace Information about and samples of people’s favourite stuff Put samples of your organization’s possible new products on MySpace to test-market them
Collaboration and Communication Tools Examples Useful for This Kind of Collaboration and Communication What You Can Do Now
Wikis JotSpot Simple, quick collaboration on document drafting and idea generation Use wikis for small-group, ad hoc collaboration in your organization
Forums Yahoo Groups Threaded, subscribable conversations among communities of practice and communities of interest Use forums for communication among ad hoc communities whose members are both inside and outside your organization
Commercial Collaboration Tools BaseCamp
(not free)
Project management including document sharing, discussions, scheduling, resource allocation, notifications  –
Mindmaps Freemind Real-time consensus-building in meetings and conferences; Visual representation of complicated information Use mindmaps projected on a screen during meetings and conferences for instant documentation and resolution of misunderstandings
VoIP Skype Simple audio and video conferencing Use Skype to enable free long-distance conferences when face-to-face is too expensive or impractical
Virtual Presence Vyew Real-time videoconferencing with screen-sharing, instant messaging, document sharing, whiteboarding, and attendance tracking Use Vyew to enable small-group videoconferencing, virtual meetings, and training when face-to-face is too expensive or impractical
Peer Production  – Producer-customer co-development of products and solutions (gift economy) Read Umair Haque’s paper and decide whether this technique has a place in your organization
‘Unconferencing’ Open Space Collaboratively addressing and resolving complex issues Read Chris Corrigan’s Open Space site and decide whether this technique has a place in your organization
Combinations of SNAs and Hardware Mashups7


  1. Facebook finds people within a specific school or organization.
  2. Don’t expect corporate directories to be current or give you the information you need to find true expertise. Instead, set up a just-in-time canvassing system, connected to e-mail groups around identified communities of practice in your organization, with request templates, to quickly find the people in your organization who have the expertise you need.
  3. If you’re going to map your organization’s networks, use Rob’s book to map the value of the networks, not just the volume of connections. Use it to support your just-in-time canvassing system (see above) and your communities of practice.
  4. These tools avoid the embarrassment of rejection (and stalking) by notifying the person you are seeking to meet (rather than you) when the two of you independently indicate you are in close physical proximity; only when the other person responds positively to this notification are you notified that that person is willing and able to meet with you. This type of software has enormous potential to enable valuable meetings of people that would otherwise not occur.
  5. These tools allow each tag recipient to key into the tag’s ‘smart’ mag stripe information on their interests and expertise; when two people with shared interests and expertise come into close physical proximity, their tags ‘flash’ those shared interests and expertise to ‘break the ice’ quickly.
  6. SMEs, CoP coordinators and internal newsletter editors are often ideal pilot groups for blogs, since they already have content that lends itself to journal format. Process: Identify the pilot group, select a blogging tool, develop and pre-populate a starting taxonomy, table of contents and initial content archive for each pilot member, develop appropriate security, RSS and internal/external access permissioning protocols, set up a help/monitoring group, offer everyone in the organization a brief seminar on blog publishing and subscribing, and talk up the externally-permissioned blogs outside the organization.
  7. Examples: Health departments are using collaboration tools combined with Google Maps to map disease outbreaks; Caregivers are using wireless VoIP with GPS and digital monitors to allow seniors with medical conditions to live in their own homes and have their health monitored continuously and unobtrusively.

The keys to success in ‘selling’ SNAs in skeptical organizations, and ensuring they are used effectively, are:

  • Enable executives to understand how they could be used, and encourage them to provide reaources for their acquisition, by developing a future state vision story that relates how your organization could accomplish things with SNAs that would be impossible without them, and improve productivity in the process.
  • When the tools are introduced, make them simple and encourage the pilot groups to self-manage their use and to develop simple ‘user guides’ that can be used when they are scaled up; this will minimize support and training costs, which in most organizations vastly exceed the cost of the software.
  • Run lots of small-scale SNA pilots/experiments in parallel, starting with people who either know and like the tools already, or have an urgent need for what they can offer; learn from both successes and failures and build on the successes.
  • Get the pilot teams to tell the executives their personal success stories that come from using SNAs — nothing gets interest and additional resources more than a delighted ‘customer’.

Discussion Questions:

  • What kind of success have you had getting SNAs introduced in your organization? 
  • What’s missing from the SNA ‘landscape’: Are there other kinds of SNA tools or mashups that might help with people-connection, social publishing andP2P information-sharing, or collaboration?
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10 Responses to Social Networking in Business: An Update

  1. dave- stellar post. at the risk of shameless self-promotion, wanted to alert you to a similar post I did on the subject:Executive Briefing: Social Networking for Businesses and Assocations

  2. Raymond says:

    Expert systems. Programs which guide users by mapping the series of questions which experts ask when addressing a situation/problem. Expert systems undergoing continuous collaborative improvement could provide a way to improve and even out the skills/training levels of employees within a company. Rather than losing the accumulated experience of employees entirely when the employees leave, the expert systems would become a better and faster way for the company as a whole to accumulate knowledge/skills. Just in time learning, market wisdom, peer production, et. al. are brought together to maximum benefit in this way.I remember a science fiction story wherein artificial intelligences ran corporations with the accumulated experience of the entire corporation. This is another example of how speculative fiction missed the mark. Instead we will have bosses being guided by the combined wisdom of their employees.If you find this comment clear and concise, I would be happy to make it murkier for you by stirring the waters with further discussion. You’ll have to email me because I probably won’t find my way back here again.

  3. flowers says: In modern times, people have sought ways to cultivate, buy, wear, or just be around flowers and blooming plants, partly because of their agreeable smell. Around the world, people use flowers for a wide range of events and functions that, cumulatively, encompass one’s lifetime

  4. flowers says: The period during which a developing fetus is carried within the uterus. In humans, pregnancy averages 266 days (38 weeks) from conception to childbirth. Traditionally, pregnancy duration is counted from the woman’s last menstrual period, which adds roughly 2 weeks to gestational age. This is how physicians arrive at a pregnancy length of 40 weeks (280 days).

  5. include an increased understanding of the brain’s function through the study of neuroscience, the development of effective new medications and therapies, and the standardization of diagnostic codes for mental illnesses

  6. thinsurface says:

    This is an awesome jam-packed post!! It is filled with great information, and the list is spectacular, providing a ton of useful links to get your readers into the benefits of social networking. Thanks, and for a little further reading, there is another great article on social networking and your business here:

  7. Brian says:

    Could become another Facebook? Since the advent of social networking sites in 1997, the phenomenon has taken the world by storm. Once called a passing fad social networking is now a thriving business, in 2006, alone it garnered over $6.5 billion in revenue, while the three biggest players, connected over 280 million subscribers in a way never known before to society. This form of connection has drawn the globe closer together than anyone ever predicted. Just a few years ago,, solely dominated the social networking site market with almost 80% of the social networking site market but now websites like Facebook entered the social networking site race becoming the 8th most viewed website in the U.S. according to web measuring traffic site which originally started at Harvard University , later extended to Boston area schools and beyond has mystified many naysayer’s with its explosive growth over the last three years and an astounding asking price of $10-$15 billion dollars for the company. But who will be next? Who will carry the torch into the future? With the rapid growth of the likes of MySpace and Facebook the burning question on everyone’s tongue is who is next? As with any burgeoning field many newcomers will and go but only the strong and unique will survive. Already many in the field have stumbled, as indicated by their traffic rankings, including heavily funded with its former founder at the helm, and with its ridiculous Web 3.0 slogan. There are many possibilities but it is a dark horse coming fast into view and taking hold in the social networking site market at the global level that has us interested the website – Less than a year ago, this newest contender directed at 25 to 50 years olds graced the absolute bottom of the list with its website ranked at a dismal 5,000,000. With not so much as a squeak this rising star hascome from the depths of anonymity growing an eye-popping 10,000% in less than one year to make itself known worldwide now sporting a recent web traffic ranking in the 5,000 range. Understanding the Market When people in the United States hear about Facebook and other services such as MySpace the widely held belief is that these websites are globally used and are as synonymous as Google or Yahoo in regards to having a global market presence. This idea is completely misguided. Now it is true that both of these social networking giants are geared to service the western industrialized cultures but when it comes to the markets of the future, the emerging markets, they have virtually no presence. The sites themselves are heavily Anglicized, and Facebook in particular has an extremely complicated web interface that eludes even those familiar with the language, making them virtually inaccessible in other parts of the world even where English is the main language. Our interest in Vois is global and geopolitical. Simply, Vois understands this lack of market service and is building its provision model on a global research concept developed by Goldman Sachs a few years ago. The concept is basically predicated on the belief that beginning now using current economic models and continuing those models over the next few decades will lead to a major paradigm shift in the world regarding nations who are current economic leaders like those being the USA and the other members of the G-7 and those who will become dominant in the world economy mainly the BRICs. In the Goldman research report Goldman highlights the fastest growing nations and has dubbed them with the two acronyms BRIC’s and N-11. BRIC standing for ( Brazil, R ussia, India and China) representing the fastest growing economies and N-11 or what are being called the Next-11 representing the next 11 countries to emerge as future important economies such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines,Turkey and Vietnam. This approach has already been implemented with some success with companies like Orkut, who has over 80% of the market share in Brazil and large holdings in India and Eastern Europe . Other providers such as Hi5 have the world as their focus and are making great strides in global market share while Facebook builds itself into a niche provider wholly unready to take on the world. A Growing Presence As Vois breaks new ground in the world market pursuing previously ignored demographics, they afford themselves the opportunity of tremendous growth unfettered by the giants such as Facebook and MySpace. While cultivating this new user base, Vois will also be able to monopolize on their business revenue strategies, creating an area of commerce that will make their site increasingly attractive to business and users the world over. This concept, dubbed sCommerce, allows the subscriber to promote themselves in both personal and a professional fashion while giving them the option of setting up shop on the site. This approach will allow business owners to target their market in a way never before allowing them to focus on interested groups of individuals while providing follow-up without having to commit to wasteful blanket campaigns that are typically the order of the day. This newfound border will allow Vois to explore new revenue models while provide a tremendous service for both their regular subscribers and business subscribers alike. With all this going on, rapid traffic growth to the site, we pose the question – is Vois the next Facebook, it sure looks like it but only time will tell

  8. Jerry Bridgman says:

    Great blog post and the fact that you have clearly identified the complexity of social networking. I believe there will be a shift in social networking from SNA’s to social networks that are specifically designed for businesses, tailored to their demands and branded. Corporations should look into developing their own platforms for social networking as this would provide them with the flexibility they require. The benefits they would receive would be vast such as higher employee engagement, enhanced communications and productivity which would drive sales and customer satisfaction. Great example of an innovative platform that provides loads of functionality and branded interfaces, brandstation. It also has a demo site in which you can test all the features:

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