Social networking refers to systems that allow members of a specific site to learn about other members’ skills, talents, knowledge, or preferences. Companies use these systems internally to help identify experts.
In the world, at large, social networks are groups of individuals who share a common interest or passion. Poker players, dog lovers, and high school alumni are a few examples of social networks in action. In the corporate world, a social network is made up of individuals who share an employer and, potentially, other interests as well. But in the pre-Internet age, managers lacked the tools to recognize or tap the business value of in-house social networks. The company softball team was a social network, sure. But what did that have to do with the bottom line?
Today, social networks are starting points for corporate innovation: potentially limitless arrangements of individuals inspired by opportunities, affinities, or tasks. People feel better and work better when they belong to a group of other people like themselves.
This new attitude toward social networks in the workplace has been fueled by the growth of social networking sites like Facebook.
Facebook was started by then-college student Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 as a way of connecting a social network—specifically, university students. Since then, Facebook has changed the way organizations connect as well. Some companies maintain a physical presence on Facebook that allows consumers to chime in about their passions (or lack of them) for corporate offerings, news, and products. Starbucks has adopted this model, asking consumers to help them revive their product lines and image.
As Zuckerberg told the Wall Street Journal, “We just want to share information more efficiently.”
And, in the information age, that’s what social networks do best. Companies are applying the online social networking model of open and closed groups to their corporate intranets, creating secure sites for employees in different locations to collaborate on projects based on common interests, management directives, and incentives. For example, IBM’s pilot virtual world will let Big Blue employees use chat, instant messaging, and voice communication programs while also connecting to user-generated content in the public spaces of Second Life, another large social networking site. IBM also opened a virtual sales center in Second Life and, separately from the Second Life partnership, is building an internal virtual world where work groups can have meetings.
The use of online social networking principles can open the door to outside collaborations. For example, Netflix offered a million-dollar reward to anyone in the company’s social network of interested inventors who could improve the algorithm that matches movie lovers to new titles they might enjoy. Companies like Procter & Gamble and InnoCentive are tapping social networks of scientists to improve their products.
Social networks fueled by passion can help managers retain, motivate, and educate staff. They might even help Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with an in-house dilemma as his company grows. According to the Wall Street Journal, the world’s most dynamic social networking site has “little management experience.”