Networking makes the right connection


To the surprise of many sceptics, social networking is moving to the workplace, writes Karlin Lillington

GIVEN THAT the Irish have a reputation for talk, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Dublin has become one of the key development locations for IBM’s social networking software.

So-called Web 2.0 social software applications such as weblogs, wikis, chat forums and instant messaging let users easily communicate with each other and with groups, and manage and share information in a highly interactive way.

Pioneered on the internet in recent years where they have become hugely popular, these types of social networking applications have been moving gradually into the workplace – to the surprise of many sceptics who at least initially felt the applications were too insecure to make the transition into organisations. Other concerns have included the inability to control tightly what users do and say with some of these tools, and even the intrinsic challenge to long-standing ways that businesses do business – allowing employees across an organisation to share data, for example, or letting customers and clients ask questions or make comments on a public forum.

But forms of these applications are becoming mainstream, and are incorporated into what IBM calls its social computing platform – in particular, software in its Lotus products like Connections and Quickr.

Much of this software is developed in IBM’s Dublin Software Lab, where some 300 of the 880 IBM developers in Ireland are now working on social computing and advanced collaboration tools, according to IBM. And far from being experimental software that businesses are wary to try out, Connections is actually “the fastest selling software product, ever, at IBM”, says Mike Roche, the chief architect at the Dublin Software Lab.

Roche, who led a team of 16 developers from the Irish IBM group to the annual LotusSphere user conference in Florida last month to talk about how businesses are using social software, says features like search tools and wikis – web pages that can be edited by groups – are being added in as demand grows for social tools. The new wiki product is being developed at the Dublin lab, he notes. This will enable group collaborations, and an organisation might use wikis for product development, he says.

The Dublin developers are also spearheading what he calls “social search” – a search feature that returns search results incorporating relevant sites that friends, family or colleagues within an organisation have recommended.

For example, if someone bookmarks a webpage on their web browser, or adds a link to their profile page, such pages will be given priority on search returns. The likelihood that a webpage on a topic is of interest would likely be increased if a colleague has bookmarked it already, says Roche.

Using social software can throw up some surprises. One of IBM’s unexpected discoveries is that by tracking who uses social software applications and how they are used within its own organisation (some 140,000 IBM employees out of a total 385,000 have access to the tools), what Roche calls the “latent structure” of an organisation is revealed.

“We’re using social networking tools to find out what the real structure is of a working group or organisation,” Roche says. While job titles may indicate who should be in charge on a project or carry a certain role, the reality is often that some other individual is the most productive in a given capacity and the flow of discussion and data through a social network will reveal that structure.

Such information might help managers to reassign people to more productive or satisfying roles.

In addition, by using social software, a huge variety of internal company information of value to employees is captured – for example, bookmarks, browser favourites, or recommendations – and since that information now appears in social search results, it becomes a repository of intelligence for the whole organisation.

“So, if you are searching for information in the company, results are filtered in a more intelligent way,” he says. “You can look at a document and see who has been accessing and commenting on it. You can then click in on the people for their profiles and use the software to explore your social organisation. You will see the people most active in the social networking space.”

He adds that this enables workers “to leverage the power of their social network – if my manager has liked or prioritised something, it’s probably something I want to see”.

Newer developments include enabling people to create a “river of news” page – a home page that gathers together all their news and information sources from alerts on Facebook pages to comments on Twitter, a popular public application that lets users make short posts to a webpage or send them to other users via text messages.

But doesn’t this level of data gathering raise privacy issues for employees? “The system has a notion of public and private tags,” he says. People can tag, or indicate, that a bookmarked webpage has a public tag and is added to social search, or is private and is not. But that does leave employees with the responsibility of making sure they only reveal what they intend to reveal.

Does social software mostly appeal to younger, more Web 2.0 oriented companies? Not necessarily, Roche says, though he notes that such tools are intrinsic to younger employees and not having them available may make an organisation less appealing as an employer.

While the learning curve and the psychological barriers are perhaps steeper for older, more traditional organisations, they often find they have a wealth of internal information that has been hidden until social software reveals it.

“Before, companies relied on individual effort,” says Roche. “Now, the wisdom of the crowd can prevail.”

Web 2.0 in the workplace

COMPANIES INCREASINGLY are using a wide range of social software either to connect employees in-house or communicate outside with customers and partners. Some of the common tools are:

BLOGS: Weblogs, which utilise a date and time-stamped diary format, can be used to discuss events, products and company issues, and to share and discuss ideas and projects.

Because they allow visitors to post comments, they create a useful space for dialogue and feedback.

DISCUSSION BOARDS: chat forums and e-mail lists: long popular with internet users of all sorts, these tools can be used with project group members, customers, product and service users, employees and partners. For large companies like IBM and HP, boards have been used for huge international brainstorming projects.

PROFILES AND COMMUNITIES: social profile sites like Ning and Facebook have demonstrated that people like to form and interact with ad hoc or focused communities based on people’s personal profile pages.

Within companies, profiles and broader communities may be used for large work or smaller project groups, or across the company. They often are set up to utilise many other social software tools.

BOOKMARKS: bookmarking online materials that are of interest or use and sharing those bookmarks lets others go directly to primary source material and draw upon vetted information.

Bookmarks could relate to a particular project or product or service, but also to personal information that may be helpful to others – a site for booking car hire or discount airline tickets for example.