Social Networking - What is the Business Value?

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Social networking has become widely adopted in the consumer and personal market place, but has not gotten the anticipated traction in the business world. I've been mulling over this market dilemma for a long time and have developed some ideas to explain the lagging business adoption. For clarity, social networking is defined as the bundling of all of the components of communication: wikis, blogs, podcasts, video, content development tools (document and presentation development, and spreadsheet functionality), instant messaging and email. I'd be interested in getting your feedback on these ideas, as well as your thoughts on why we are seeing such a slow adoption of social networking within the business community.

The value in the consumer arena is clear. There are literally hundreds of groups representing a wide variety of interests. These networks are essentially communities of interest. This week I saw a press release for a social network in the consumer market on the topic of shoes. Shoes are a serious topic for some shoppers, and I immediately saw the appeal of the network. Who doesn't want to know the latest trends in shoes being shown a year in advance at the fashion shows of Paris and Milan? To get a jump on the trend affords buyers the opportunity to look for more affordable knockoffs or comparables even before the new models arrive. The point here, consumer-based social networks tend to be very narrowly focused on a specific topic.

The value of personal social networks is also obvious. By now I am sure you have signed up for Plaxo or LinkedIn or possibly both. Each of these personal networks also provides subdivisions to more narrowly focused networks such as MIT Alumni or Business Intelligence. Individuals obtain value through their professional relationships. Personal networks are not materially different than the old fashioned rolodex, it just puts the information in an electronic location. Where we once picked up the phone to speak with our business contacts, we now send emails or even group emails. The value of personal social networking has not changed, it has just gone electronic.

The value of social networking for business isn't so clear. Most of the measurable benefits such as improved collaboration and document iteration management is already in place; ditto for customer feedback and customer forums. There are also forums and message boards on most vendors' products and services that prospects can readily access. In terms of all the components of social networking being on a single platform, we already have that, too, in the form of unified communications (UC). In addition, mobility and mobile access is available from both types of collaboration offers. The drawbacks to social networking in the business environment are no different than those of UC. All of the issues of security come into play including access control and document sharing. I would argue that social networking outside of the corporate firewall, or offered as a service posses a substantial security threat and potential for intellectual property leakage.

What do you think? Is social networking a better solution than unified communications? Why aren’t we seeing a stronger uptake for social networking in business?

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