"Social networking tools are great for reaching out to customers, but employees sometimes overstep their boundaries," says Oliver Young, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. He recently spoke with a hospital manager whose nurses were "friending" patients on Facebook and providing medical advice outside of the hospital's legal purview. "It's a huge risk for them," says Young, and the hospital wanted to prevent it from happening again. Employee education was the answer.
"If you're doing anything other than customer support or marketing on a public social network, then it's risky in terms of data retention," says Jevon MacDonald, a senior partner at Dachis Group, which develops custom social networks for businesses. "Consumer [social networking] services aren't safe enough. I've heard about companies creating private groups on Facebook, but there's just no security capability strong enough for an enterprise to use," he adds.
Internal social networking
Dozens of boutique vendors offer customized software services for internal social networks. Microsoft Corp. and IBM are also upgrading their document collaboration tools to add social-networking-type features. Internal social networking tools provide the same kind of interpersonal collaboration as the popular public sites, but they also include document collaboration and even interaction with back-end office systems -- all behind the firewall.
"The biggest advantage is that you can integrate ERP and CRM systems into the stream and leverage those processes -- making them actionable," MacDonald says.
"There are real successes with the inward-facing [social networks]," says William Zachmann, senior enterprise social networking analyst at Wainhouse Research in Duxbury, Mass. He points to big multinational companies that use them to identify employees with expertise in certain areas, which helps staffers easily find the go-to people when they need them.
But collaboration on a massive scale has its challenges. "It's a tricky thing to do. You're not just installing software, you're trying to deal with the social structure of the company and the psychology of people," says Zachmann.
What's more, internal social networks can fall victim to the same massive information overload as public sites and e-mail. "They don't inherently reduce information," Zachmann adds. Companies must develop filters for determining what information goes to each employee.
Services such as Yammer, Socialcast and Huddle -- and software-as-a-service-based offerings like Socialtext -- provide a middle ground between public social networking sites and customized, behind-the-firewall setups.