Web 2.0: Companies Gain Competitive Edge with Social Networking Tools

Facebook-like apps and social networking tools are enabling companies to encourage innovation, create flexible work arrangements, establish virtual teams, bring new employees up to speed, improve collaboration, increase retention among people who hadn't felt a strong sense of belonging, and more.

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Ackerbauer says he can now connect with people on a social level that's typically absent when working remotely. Such connections help his teammates relate to one another like human beings and not just as resources or assets. Just recently, Ackerbauer says, he ended up speaking at a technology leadership conference, thanks to a connection he made with another employee who wouldn't have otherwise known he had expertise in the subject area.

Despite its experimental status, Beehive's user population has grown to 38,000 in nine months, mainly through viral adoption. "People find it through word of mouth, when others blog about it or bookmark it," Schick says. Adoption is strongest in the areas of product management, HR, talent management and the global services consulting business.

Because Beehive is behind the firewall, Ackerbauer says, people feel free to discuss internal business topics. For instance, he has used Beehive to explain his views on the topic of breakthrough thinking. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'I didn't know you knew all that stuff. Can we talk more?'" Ackerbauer says. "The connections lead to collaboration, which leads to innovation, which leads to transformations in the industries IBM serves."

Schick's advice: Be aware that one size does not fit all. To increase involvement, you need to explain the story of social software from multiple perspectives.

"What appeals to some will make others almost cringe," he says. For instance, new employees may want to use social software to increase their visibility, while veterans may be motivated to keep people informed. Similarly, he says, focus more on why than on how in your training program.

"Knowledge workers today have no time to add new activities to their day; they're looking for how to work smarter," Schick says. "Poor user adoption is rarely because users didn't know how but rather didn't see why."

The whys of social networking

Employees tend to have at least one of four goals when they use social networks, according to Amy Shuen, author of Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide. The first two are common, she says; the second two are more cutting-edge.

1. Quick access to knowledge, know-how and "know-who." In their profiles, people can list skills, expertise and experience, as well as previous employers and people they know. As with LinkedIn, this helps simplify the job of locating people with the knowledge they need. "It's a way of leapfrogging quickly through several degrees of separation to find out who knows something on a topic that's of importance to you," Shuen says. This is particularly useful inside multidivisional and multinational organizations, she says.

2. Expansion of social connections and broadening of affiliations. This is the Facebook model, Shuen says, in which the goal is to get to know people better online by interacting with them and keeping up with their personal information. "It's about decreasing your social distance virtually," Shuen explains.

3. Self-branding and expression of a personal digital identity and reputation. Before long, people get creative with their profiles and begin to think about how they want to be known in the company. This is along the lines of a Flickr account or a personal blog or Web page. "Web 2.0 is deeply changing the expectations of knowledge workers as to how they can build their own personal brand within a corporation, not just find knowledge they need or socialize," Shuen says.

4. Referrals/testimonials/benchmarking/RSS updating. On social networks, the viral distribution of knowledge becomes important. For instance, people want to know how many of their "friends" have recommended a video or have joined a community. And in turn, if they discover something cool, they want to spread the word. "This sense of benchmarking against others in social networking is different from anything we've seen before," Shuen says.

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