October 20, 2011, 1:36 PM — From retail chains to electric utilities to manufacturers, a growing number of U.S. corporations are harnessing the power of social networks to modernize how their employees communicate with each other, business partners and customers -- making these firms more nimble in the marketplace and leaving their less Facebook-savvy rivals trailing.
In the last 18 months, hundreds of thousands of companies have signed up for private cloud-based social networking services such as Yammer, Chatter, Huddle and Jive -- all of which are modeled after Facebook.
Today, millions of U.S. workers are using these social networking services on the job instead of e-mail, Intranet sites, wikis, blogs or other collaboration software. CIOs are reporting significant returns on their investments in these services, which cost $5 or less per user, per month.
"Social networking is really powerful because it allows people to have real conversations with each other, and it's unfiltered," says Chris Laping, CIO of the Denver-based Red Robin Gourmet Burger chain and a Yammer user. "It's a great way for me to get a pulse check on the topics that people are talking about in the regions, whether it's labor costs or food costs. ...There isn't a week that goes by that I don't see some conversation on Yammer that I don't think: 'Wow, that's interesting.'"
"I can't imagine going to another company and not having this," says Jon Green, vice president of IT with DenMat, a Santa Maria, Calif., dental products manufacturer that deployed Chatter 20 months ago. "We have a very aging employee base, and, quite frankly, I've been surprised at how many of them are on Facebook. ... Companies that don't adopt social networking will have a lot harder time recruiting or exciting their staffs.''
In the three years since it launched, Yammer has signed up 100,000 corporate accounts, including 80% of the Fortune 500. Among its 3 million users are employees of AMD, PitneyBowes, Deloitte and Ford. The cloud-based service provider is growing at a clip of 200,000 new users per month.