At these sites, any employee can start a free network feed and invite other colleagues to discuss ideas, post news, ask questions, and share links and other information. Employee profiles and conversation threads are also easily summoned. Access to these conversations is restricted to employees with valid company e-mail addresses.
But because they are free and easy to set up, these networks can pop up without IT's knowledge, and gaining control after the company's information is out there will cost you. At Yammer.com, for instance, companies can pay to administer their own networks.
Also, employees who leave a company will still be able to access the company's network unless an administrator removes them. "That mixture of present and past employees can be a dangerous mix," Young says.
Another concern -- especially for companies in highly regulated industries such as financial services and pharmaceuticals -- is the risk of having social networking conversations summoned into a legal proceeding. Without control over archiving, it would be difficult to produce documentation, Young warns.
Right now, Yammer is a relatively techie-oriented tool used mostly by technology firms and companies with a lot of engineers. But it could also appeal to small organizations or departments that are "hive-minded" and already like to share information, MacDonald says.
"There is no question you can get some genuine benefits if you use the right platform and do it right. But identifying what the right platform is and doing it right is not all that easy," Zachmann says.
Start with a project or small group and apply one of the social network strategies. If it adds value, begin thinking about the entire business as an ecosystem that could potentially be redesigned to utilize these tools, says MacDonald.
On the flip side, "if it's not productive -- if employees don't say 'I really want to work this way' after the initial frustration people always have with changing to any technology -- then you shouldn't be using these tools," says Young.
Eventually, social networking features will probably be integrated with the document collaboration tools that companies are already using, and they'll be included with software upgrades, industry watchers say.
But enterprise social networking is at a very early stage, and whether it achieves widespread adoption or is just a flash in the pan remains to be seen, Zachmann says. "It looks like it will continue to gain traction," he says, "but we're not talking about something that's going to take over the world tomorrow."
Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.