How to Make Social Networking Serve Business Purposes

Using social collaboration isn't for the sake of socializing. If employees become friends through the network and then go out after work hours, that's wonderful and may even have soft benefits for the business in terms of team cohesion — but that's really beside the point. The purpose of social collaboration is to get work done better or faster.

Social collaboration in your business should be used to align the types of connections people make; share content; and raise awareness of the functions that are available for goals like accelerating projects, solving business problems, and generating ideas for new products.

Probably the biggest distinction between enterprise and public social networking is that business conversations require privacy and security. Business collaboration is often restricted to employees only, maybe with a few trusted contractors treated as "honorary employees." And even within a company, departments and project groups likely want to carve out private collaboration areas off-limits to other employees. Certainly, sometimes businesses find that it makes sense to extend access to a specific collaboration group to a select group of partners or employees: for example, to gather feedback after giving these outsiders a sneak peak at a new product prototype.

There are also corporate applications of social software that are open to the general public, such as customer support communities where the users of software products gather to exchange tips and answer each other's questions.

And you may want to selectively invite suppliers, business partners, and even customers into the social collaboration environment for your business. There's a great argument for making active collaborators of your best customers: for example, by inviting them to take part in a product development activity or participating in an online focus group to give feedback on the prototype of a new product.

Most social collaboration systems now provide a mechanism for inviting external collaborators into a specific discussion or project group where they can connect with your employees, without giving those outsiders access to employee-only areas of the social network. These external user accounts are limited in scope but still more privileged than accounts on a general purpose forum for customer support where anyone can create an account.

The best public customer communities have a collaborative element and may try to get the entire community thinking about ideas for product improvements. Members contribute gladly because they feel like they're respected and heard. Employees beyond the customer service organization may have accounts on these social forums and actively participate. The best and most trusted members of the customer community may be given access to private areas within the public community. However, although this is not an iron-clad rule, public customer communities tend to run in physically or logically segregated instances of social software.

That's typically the case even if the organization has chosen one software standard for both public and private social networking. And it's not atypical for the organization to choose one social platform for internal use and another for its external communities. As a result, granting an outsider even limited access to your organization's private social collaboration system is significantly different from connecting with that person in a public community.

By definition, collaborators work together toward common goals. Whether the users are employees only or also trusted outsiders, the reason to provide them with a social collaboration environment is to help them work better. You want to strive for payoffs, such as improved productivity, quality, and innovation. Along the way, you also want participants to get to know each other better. You want them to see each other's faces and learn each other's strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. There is a business reason for this.

When the standard business process breaks down, or the technical support representative gets a question not answered in the official documentation, your employees will cope better if they know who to call, e-mail, or message through the social software. When employees know each other better, they're better at solving problems both large and small.

The following figure shows an example of posting a request for help in the IBM Connections environment. This is actually from the IBM Greenhouse environment, which is made publicly accessible as a demonstration of the software and a support forum for customers. In IBM Connections and most other social collaboration environments, you can direct a post to another user using what's called an @mention — a reference to that person's name or username preceded by the "@" sign. When you use this in a public status post, the person you've targeted will get a notification, but others who might be able to offer an answer or offer help can also see it.

Asking for help in IBM Connections.
Asking for help in IBM Connections.

The next figure shows how you post a question in NewsGator, one of several social platforms that treats questions as a distinct content type. Here, the question is targeted at one person, but others could also jump in and answer it. If you specifically classify a post as a question, you can go back and mark it answered when you get a satisfactory response. Other users and forum moderators can also filter to see just the unanswered questions requiring follow-up. IBM Connections and Jive provide similar functionality in their discussion forums.

Classifying a post as a question in NewsGator.
Classifying a post as a question in NewsGator.
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