Technology vendors have begun selling tools that allow companies to build social networks internally for their employees. But recent research and interviews with analysts suggest that the adoption of these tools has been slow due to a lack of engagement by users and the stiff competition for their time posed by sites such as Facebook.
The perceived need for internally controlled social networks stems from the fact that companies want to give their employees the capability to collaborate over them but don't want to see intellectual property exposed on Facebook or other sites in the consumer space, says Oliver Young, a Forrester analyst.
"As people use social networks for business and personal communications, it becomes more problematic," he says. "More [corporate] information has been finding its way into consumer social networks than companies would like."
Based on recent research on Web 2.0 spending , however, Young says he expects that companies will be slow to embrace social networks internally, but will push forward with building them for external interactions with customers.
In 2008, Forrester expects companies with 1,000 or more employees to spend approximately $110 million for building externally facing social networks, while only $60 million for the internal variety. Over time, that gap will widen. By 2013, the consultancy predicts external spending to reach $1.7 billion, while internal spending will hold around $208 million.
Young believes the reason for the lack of adoption internally will be because a good social network, by its very nature, relies on the network effect. If people don't embrace it collectively, it can quickly become irrelevant and useless.
"If a company starts one, and only half the people join, the value is already much lower," Young says.
Facebook and the Power of Incumbency
Any internal social network also must compete for eye-share with established consumer networks. If a company doesn't ban consumer social networks outright, the chances of their users dedicating time to the enterprise social network decreases, says Jonathan Yarmis, an analyst with AMR Research.
"They're competing with the public social network," Yarmis says. "The challenge they have is that the public ones can replace the private ones, but the private ones can't replace the public ones."
While analysts make their projections, the technology to make these internal social networks is still in its infancy, and finding examples of them can be tough. Web 2.0 vendors have only recently added internal social networking capabilities to their offerings to make themselves more of a one-stop for internal collaboration. Jive Software, which makes blogs and wikis, added a profiles function recently, as did Socialtext .
Well-established vendors, meanwhile, offer social networking functions in their enterprise versions of Web 2.0 software. IBM's Lotus Connections has had customers adopt the feature, including Teach For America). And Microsoft says that it has SharePoint Customers using its social networking tools MySites feature, including a cosmetics company featured on its website.
The Value of Automated Data Feeds for Collaborative Applications
Analysts say the social network offerings by Microsoft and IBM—the two vendors Forrester predicts will dominate the software market for collaboration technologies— have good basic functions but need to do a better job at feeding information into them automatically rather than relying on employees to do it themselves.
This would include pushing information into them from systems and applications people are already making heavy use of, including e-mail, blogs and wikis, says Forrester's Young.
If vendors can integrate existing systems and have them fed into the network, Brian Kotlyar, an analyst with the Yankee Group, says that internal social networks will catch on.
"The opportunity becomes clearer when you strip away some of the frivolity of social networking and just look at it from an information management perspective," he says. "Then you see that there are some really valuable mechanisms for sharing content, finding experts and working collaboratively already in place and they just need to be adapted to the workplace."
But AMR's Yarmis notes that end-users will want something that looks pretty, and that blends enterprise and consumer content in one area. One vendor in particular, WorkLight, has worked at pushing corporate data as widgets to users' Facebook and iGoogle home pages while not exposing that information to those people's "friends" outside the corporate firewall.
"Some might find that approach appealing because there's this demand for a blending of the public and private life," Yarmis says. "But we're waiting to see which approach will emerge."