Is the Enterprise Ready for its own MySpace?

Collaborative technologies are enabling diverse employee groups to work together, even if they’re too old for nose piercings.
Posted January 25, 2007
By

Jeff Vance

Jeff Vance


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“Collaboration” has been an enterprise buzzword for years. It helps employees work smarter, frees information from data silos, and facilitates better working relationships across department boundaries.

That’s the hype, anyway.

The reality has thus far been less than stellar. One reason for the lackluster performance is top-down implementation strategies, with the typical implementation cycle going something like this: executives are quickly sold on it, IT spends a lot of time and money deploying it, and employees promptly ignore it.

A typical knowledge worker has specific work to get done each day, and they collaborate in ways they’re comfortable with – over the phone, in meeting rooms, and via email. Much of the collaboration is serial in nature, but it’s collaborative and the work gets done. That’s all anyone cares about.

None of these status-quo methods of collaboration are particularly efficient, but they are part of the fabric of corporate life. They also have intangible benefits. Just getting people into face-to-face meetings has value. After all, who do you have stronger relationships with, people whose faces you know or those who are just voices on the phone or names in your inbox?

Moreover, if collaborative applications aren’t concretely tied to work flows and the ways people already interact, they are dead on arrival. Too often, collaboration strategies change rather than augment what people are already doing.

Does that mean collaboration in the enterprise is a hopeless cause? Not quite.

Collaboration is quietly finding another avenue into the enterprise. Rather than coming at the behest of C-level executives, it is now coming in through the back door, brought in by ordinary employees.

Social Networking’s Back Door to the Enterprise

As with WLANs, cell phones, and PDAs before it, collaboration – in the form of social networking applications like Plaxo, LinkedIn, and, yes, even MySpace – is being used to make the work day easier and more interesting.

I brought this point up in a conversation with Antony Brydon, CEO and co-founder of Visible Path, a provider of enterprise networking tools. “All the things you mentioned had something important in common: they were part of broader technology trends. Social networking is clearly part of a larger trend, and it has an additional benefit the others did not, namely that adoption is viral in nature.”

How, though, does an up-tick in blogging and business networking sites like Plaxo translate into enterprise applications?

“What’s of value is the network,” Brydon said. “We refer to it as ‘relationship capital.’ The assumption is that your network of professional contacts is part of your organization’s net worth. If you have a way to map and manage that network, you will benefit the organization’s bottom line.”

While you may be using Plaxo simply to keep up with colleagues changing jobs, the organization could benefit from having a broadening network it could tap into for partnerships or sales.

From Personal to Organizational Relationships

The key to making that leap, from a personal to an organizational relationship, is to search through the vast number of social networking applications, email accounts, and contact lists to find appropriate relationships. "Once a list of contacts is known, the next step is to determine the strength of those relationships before mapping them across the organization.”

Quantifying how a relationship benefits the bottom line, though, is at least as tricky as mapping it. “Think of it this way,” Brydon said, “if your network of relationships can be used to hire someone, find information more efficiently, or cut a sales cycle in half, then you’ve achieved something more concrete than ‘collaboration.’”

Brydon pointed to research from the University of Chicago and the University of North Carolina that showed that a sales person is sixteen times more likely to land a meeting if it is arranged through a common contact. Similarly, a company recruiting a potential employee is ten times more likely to land that person if a common party helps facilitate the effort.

Another entrance point for social networking in the enterprise is through document management. If information is the lifeblood of organizations, then finding ways to better manage, store, re-use, and even retire information is of critical importance.

Next page: A case study, Plus: Moving beyond email.


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