Social networking 'a business opportunity'


COMPANIES THAT block access to Facebook, Twitter and networking sites like LinkedIn do so to the detriment of their businesses, warned Web 2.0 evangelists at an event in Derry this week.

A conference for business start-ups, Awakening Creative Entrepreneurship, highlighted how social networking was a business opportunity and not a threat.

“These are disruptive technologies that change everything. It scares some companies, but if they don’t embrace it they will wither and die,” said Ian Hughes, formerly of IBM, where he held the role of “metaverse evangelist”.

The exploration of virtual worlds has become Mr Hughes’s ongoing crusade. When he is not an avatar called ePredator, he is blogging, twittering and harnessing whatever channel he has at his disposal to break down misconceptions that people have about the web.

At IBM he used Second Life – the virtual world where participants lead an alternative existence – to meet peers from Dell and Cisco for candid discussions that would not have happened in the real world. To further highlight the value of hanging out in virtual worlds he cited advisers to Barack Obama, who regularly meet up in the role-play internet game World of Warcraft.

“People who need to talk will gather together online and try to come to terms with the same problems and challenges, sharing common experiences,” he said.

Euan Semple is another ex-employee of a large corporation who has embarked on a similar journey. Former head of knowledge at the BBC, he talked of how businesses were making a big mistake by “locking down firewalls” and blocking off valuable communication channels.

According to Mr Semple, some blue-chip companies had found it quicker to get hold of their staff through the business networking site LinkedIn than on their own internal systems.

Large firms are also missing out on important feedback from their customers. “It’s staggering that most companies haven’t a clue about the depth in which their products are being talked about on the web,” he said.

SMEs are also missing a trick, said Mr Semple, because there is an opportunity to use forums to exchange information. “They have struggled to see a benefit from social networking, but they could get together and collectively pool their knowledge like they did with the old business guilds.”

Both speakers were fighting what they saw as an old-fashioned mentality that dismissed the new networking platforms as a childish distraction that gets in the way of real work.

Rather than cut employees off from the “noise” of the internet, Mr Semple said that they should be empowered with tools like RSS feeds and tags to disseminate information more easily.

“Most systems have been about managing the noise and making it silent. It’s now about getting as much noise as you can and the tools to view it more easily.”

He believes the recession could advance rather than delay a change in attitude. “The old world is falling apart, which makes it easier to justify the new one.”