Feb 022009

I’ve been often slightly confused (maybe in my befuddled “old” age) by social networking sites. My experience with them went a little something like this:

Friendster: New thing, what do you do on here? Is it for dating? Oh, this is kind of cool– you can see the web of how your friends are connected. How long has it been since I logged on? What? They got a seven figure round of funding and they need someone to run their internal IT department? Do I really want to go to Mountain View every day? What’s to stop me or anyone from duplicating this in six weeks’ time? When was the last time I logged on?

MySpace: My nephew wants me to get on this so he can myspace me. OK. Man, this is slow. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do here. I get lots of spam and lots of comments from one particular ex-girlfriend. OK, whatever, this is an also-ran.

Tribe: I feel like I’m on the Friendster all over again. Ooh, I get to go through all my friends’ friends and add them as friends and… well, what do we do on here? <poke poke> There must be something interesting. Recipes… whatever. OK, local posting among my friends, but Craigslist seems like a better bet? Maybe? Maybe when I rent my apartment?

Facebook: I don’t think I buy it, but I’ve been told that, now that I’m back in graduate school, that Facebook will be at least as important to my social life as my mobile phone. The picture app is cool. I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do. Oh, look, students getting sent down from university due to photos on facebook. Make sure you don’t friend your parents on facebook! OK, job search coming up– anything I need to de-tag? OK, probably one or two. These apps are annoying– not really sure what they’re about, and anyway, I don’t really have time for them.

LinkedIn: Not really social networking, seems like a good idea to have places to go to keep track of changing emails and whatnot. Job search functionality is good. Man, I really do know an awful lot of people. I can see how this might be useful, though– this whole going-through-the-network thing– exploiting weak ties and whatnot.

Six months later, I may have discovered what social networking is for: It’s for a) reconnecting with “lost” people, and it’s particularly useful when living in remote, strange places where you don’t know a lot of people. Facebook is pretty well-executed, but I still don’t see the profit potential (well, I see the disruptive potential of the medium, and I’m sure that someone’s going to find a way to make sense of all that data, but I think that the use is going to come from other sources).

The real value:
Actually, I think there’s huge and unexploited potential to use social networks in companies– to analyse and manage distributed networks of people.

Lots of companies use them to capture information, and even the aggregate information can be used to identify power brokers and communications networks inside of organisations. (seeing who is communitcating with whom).

The real value comes from supporting and enabling discussions and communities of practice.

Enormous value comes from building networks that aid in organisational resiliance, and helping to achieve collaboration.

Further real value comes from status updates, sharing of information, and capturing IM conversations.

Work can actually be fun. Keep it interesting, keep your employees motivated, and it will be.

Geeky bits – How do I do it, and what else can I do?
As search technology gets better, as communications technology gets better, it’s becoming more integrated*; as it’s becoming more integrated, it becomes easier to capture information.

Information overload
We’re suffering from information overload. There are two ways to deal with this: Strucutre and control that information, including all kinds of granular access controls, which runs the risk of losing information you need, missing opportunities for collaboration, user indifference, and perhaps most critically, users end-running around you and installing their own whatever– whether it’s USB drives, internal file servers, ipods, or whatever. Yes, you can limit all of those things with security policies, but it’s just more work for yourself and more difficult for you to do your job.

Think about the situation where you use your desktop search app to find the email or IM you can’t dig up– gmail’s search functionality is excellent for this (although I use Thunderbird to read/write email generally). Now imagine that it’s across your Intranet, and you can access your IMs, emails, wiki postings, blogs, Sharepoint (or other posted) documents, etc.

Imagine going to your email client, finding a voicemail, clicking to call, switching to IM, searching up a past conversation, popping up a desktop control session, all from one place. It’s kind of the holy grail, and we’re almost there.

Imagine that someone’s out of the office (vacation, redundant, fired, quit) and you need some piece of information that’s in their head. They don’t answer, or, in a bad case, demand renegotiation of their redundancy package or want consulting hours to come sort it out. Imagine that same enterprise desktop search across their work email, IMs, etc.

Preparation versus control for floods
We can do a couple of things to prepare for this flood: Set up a lot of arcane strucutres and control it, or understand that it’s coming and have a good boat (along with some fishing nets, water supplies… OK, the analogy is breaking down). I’m suggesting go with the flow. Make it fun, make it interesting, enable good search across that range of information, and let people get back to work.

Sharepoint 2007/MOSS is great at this (remember, I come from a UNIX/Linux background, so that’s quite the statement) and it functions (with some twiddling and expensive consulting) with Microsoft’s UC. There are some promising open source alternatives (I’m looking forward to trying Unison which looks quite promising myself, as when you start up a business, setting up Exchange is a bit much). Zimbra does much of what Outlook does as well. Alfresco claims to do what SharePoint does (and at a much lower cost), and it supports SharePoint’s protocols. Google’s had some success with their search appliance (but I’ve heard about some growing pains as well).

Opportunities versus problems
Fundamentally, when you run into a challenge, you can view it as an opportunity or a problem. The world moves awfully quickly, and if you start to see things as opportunities– for learning, growth, experimentation– you have the chance to innovate and create. See what happens when you crowdsource internally. You enable collaboration. You can build communties of practice.

Make work fun. Keep it interesting. It’s a much bigger motivator than money or prizes. Build relationships over the long term, and people will think you’re a great place to work– you’ll have access to a bigger talent pool.

*although hopefully built as small, separate pieces and integrated so that it doesn’t become too heavy and bloated… Much as I love Outlook’s capabilities, I’m often stymied by its resource requirements and heavy disk swapping– I just want to send an email! This isn’t so bad on a desktop, but my thin-light 4200rpm laptop makes it… painful)

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