Teach for America Adopts Social Networking for Members

Teach for America chose Lotus Connections, IBM's social software suite that includes a profiling function for enterprise social networks.

Teach for America (TFA), the nonprofit group that helps place college graduates into teaching jobs with low-income communities, will adopt social networking for its 5,000 members this spring to share information with one another about best practices, job opportunities and other career interests.

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"We might have a fifth-grade teacher in Philadelphia and another fifth-grade teacher in Los Angeles,"says Ben Lichtenwalner, Teach for America's vice president of technology. "We need them to be able to find each other and share relevant information," such as teaching techniques.

The project, to be launched in beta this May, will be built on Lotus Connections, IBM's social software suite that includes profiles, communities, blogs, bookmarking and online tracking of various tasks. In the company's last quarterly earnings report, IBM called Connections the fastest-growing software in the company's history.

Lichtenwalner says a primary reason his organization chose Connections, instead of trying out other options in the Web 2.0 startup space, involved integrating the new system with existing data the organization held about its members.

While Lichtenwalner wouldn't disclose how much he's paying for Connections, an IBM spokeswoman says it typically costs $110 per user, which is a one-time fee and includes software and support for a year. After one year, the customer pays a per-user maintenance and support fee, an amount IBM doesn't release, but which she says is much lower.

To set up a social network internally, Lichtenwalner says he wanted to push a baseline of biographical information from back-end systems to the profile page of his members. In addition, he says that TFA members in the past had set up their own informal social networks ad hoc—he wanted a way to connect those disparate groups by bringing them on to one system.

Oliver Young, a Forrester analyst who studies Web 2.0 technologies in the enterprise, says incumbent vendors such as IBM (and Microsoft, with its SharePoint platform) have addressed integration worries to woo customers like Teach for America. "Integration with the back end is very important," Young says. "It's one of the reasons IT departments will go with a vendor like IBM, since they already do a lot of the large-scale infrastructure."

Lichtenwalner says the rollout will initially center on Teach for America's 5,000 members. He believes their predisposition to social networking—their generation drove the emergence of sites such as Facebook—should help ensure widespread adoption. Eventually, he hopes to extend the Connections software to his 800-person staff and 12,000 alumni members of the organization founded in 1990. For the latter, Lichtenwalner believes it could help graduates of the program land job opportunities.

"If a member of our alumni logs on to the system from their home in Atlanta, and we know [from internal systems] there's an opening for a principal there, we want to let them know about it immediately over the network,"he says.

In the spirit of social networking, Lichtenwalner says he will encourage users to update information about themselves and share mutual interests. But he doesn't want users to forget why they're on the TFA social network. "What they do is teach, and we want to capture that knowledge,"he says. "We don't want to be Facebook or LinkedIn. We want to give them information that's relevant to them."

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