Facebook, Google+ and Twitter – it's not hard to realise that social networking is an important part of today's environment.
Recently, there has been a push to expand the instant, always-on, real-time nature of social communication and collaboration directly into the enterprise so workers and team members can get a sense of what others are working on, what resources are available, who has expertise in what areas and so on.
If you're a CIO considering a social networking platform for your business, or you are on the committee tasked with finding good platforms to deploy, this article is for you.
It takes a look at what place social networking has in the enterprise and what features and requirements social platforms must have to be effective.
One caveat: Any discussion of enterprise social networking should be split into a couple different types of social awareness and engagement. There's "internal" social publication, where colleagues and team members can find each other, intersect and discuss relevant details of their business and work.
There's also "external" social engagement, where members of your sales, marketing and public relations teams come together to create conversations and interact with customers, prospects, vendors and others.
This article will discuss internal networking. There are a whole other sets of tools to cover the latter.
How enterprise social networking promotes employee engagement
There is value in connecting people within your own company, especially as you have disparate locations and hundreds, if not thousands, of employees. Imagine needing to solve a problem, say, analysing a spreadsheet.
You don't know how a number was generated or where it came from. Head over to the intranet, type in the phrase "COGS for the Widget division" and instantly see the right people working on that number. Connect, and off you go. No travel expenses, no shared introductions – just walls being knocked down.
Microsoft, for one, thought such a capability was so important that it bought an entire company for its product. The giant acquired Yammer, a 4-year-old social networking company, simply because it felt it was falling behind well-integrated social platforms such as Salesforce.com Chatter.
It will be including Yammer technology alongside Office 2013, and analysts expect it to be integrated within the SharePoint on-premises and cloud-based products very soon. (If you feel late to the enterprise social networking party, well, console yourself that you avoided having to spend $1.2 billion, as Microsoft did, just to call yourself caught up.)
5 things you'll want in an enterprise social networking platform
As you begin looking to standardise on an enterprise social networking platform, give the following features priority as you perform your evaluations. Each is critically important to pursuing the full evolution of social strategy in an internal business setting.
1. Corporate directory synchronisation. Having an internal social network requires that everyone be provisioned on the system; otherwise, the problem is that users will become siloed. For a pilot deployment, this is not a big deal, as you would likely choose certain groups to begin using the system. Once deployment is complete, though, you want users provisioned immediately; everyone, all the time, no matter what.
Consider that social networks are especially useful for new employees, too. This includes those who are brand new to the company, so getting them set up on the platform is supremely important for orientation purposes.
It also important for those who are transitioning to new roles on different teams or within different departments, where instant connections and an understanding of the hierarchy and structure can be made and had through the social network.
This is a key component of an enterprise social network, and it's what really sets something such as Chatter or Yammer apart from just using Facebook groups, which are opt-in and exist only when users create accounts and join in. Discount any platform that doesn't immediately integrate with your main directory, such as Active Directory or an LDAP-based corporate resource.
2. Customisable user profiles. The difference between something such as a SharePoint "My Site" or a human resources department profile, and what can be arranged through an extensible social platform such as Chatter, is the personality and spirit the latter to enterprise social efforts.
Personalising user profiles allow the sort of ad-hoc, inspired postings and journals to be more visible throughout your organisation.
When employees have good ideas or are thinking about how to solve problems, their profile page can be a resource for them to post about their thoughts. Then others can find those pages and connect, without cumbersome introductions, mail threads or-even worse-not even finding each other at all.
(None of this is to say that you need to allow copious dog and kid photos, but that comes under governance and security. More on that later.) Make sure your platform lets people be creative and bring a personal touch to their internal online profile.
3. Integration with collaboration tools and platforms. One of the key reasons analysts applauded Microsoft's Yammer acquisition was the integration possibilities with Microsoft's existing corporate software, including Exchange, SharePoint, Lync or Office Communications Server and Skype.
A social platform that exists to extend and augment existing tools will always be more successful than a platform that just sits there with its own feature set and its own play space, waiting for people to post.
Look for social networking software that looks into SharePoint or to your Oracle cloud suite or that integrates with your existing customer relationship management (CRM) system. Consider software that crosses the boundaries of any one tool and rolls up views and activities from across your users' set of tools.
Any platform with an aggregate view of activity across all systems has a much better chance of being useful, simply because there is more opportunity for interaction, more spark for discussion and more reasons for people to connect based on their own activities.
4. Compliance and governance features. Social networking has the potential to run away from you. Look at Facebook or Twitter and you'll certainly see activities, posts and other things that are absolutely not appropriate for a workplace.
Additionally, the sharing of content over a platform has certain compliance implications, particularly for regulated industries and those responsible for maintaining a Chinese firewall between departments. Consider social platforms that have the governance and security features you need to allow sharing and connections without jeopardising your regulatory compliance or HR standards.
5. Metrics and analytics. Like any other IT effort, it is all well and good to proceed with an initiative, deploy it and get users involved and interacting with it. But how do you know how well it works? How can you measure adoption rates, volumes of comments, connections made and overall use of the system?
How can you see where certain areas of the platform seem underutilised and what areas might require additional user training in order to achieve maximum uptake? Search for platforms with rich and varied analytics capabilities, particularly those that integrate with other data center and environment monitoring suites such as Microsoft System Center or Idera.
In short, 2013 is a new era in Microsoft productivity software. The Office client looks and feels different, both the client and the server are tied to the cloud more than ever before, and your server software might even begin updating itself in a completely unheralded fashion when it comes to server software.
All of these are things for a sharp CIO to consider before making plans for upgrades.
Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based in the United States. He's also an editor with Apress Media LLC.