The good news is that everyone (except for a few executive technophiles who fear workers Twittering the day away) seems to agree that providing tools to employees that allow them to form networks with others in their organization to collaborate and share knowledge is a good idea. The bad news is that there doesn’t appear to be much consensus about which tools are best suited for corporate social networking.
Some argue that since employees are already familiar with easy-to-use consumer sites such as Facebook and MySpace, companies should co-opt them for work. Others argue that there are too many security and privacy concerns with these public sites and that companies should implement social networking software designed specifically for business or even build their own using a hodgepodge of open-source code and internal development.
Unfortunately for the latter camp, a recent CIO magazine article (April, 2008) reports that the adoption of corporate social networking is not going as well as originally expected. Why is this? The article explains, "Social networks for internal collaboration seem like a good idea in principle, but two obstacles are so far inhibiting their adoption: tools to automatically feed business information to the networks, and the challenge of vying for attention with Facebook and MySpace."
It appears as if two of the biggest turn-offs for users of corporate social networking are that they don’t want to have to add a plethora of information into yet another application and that they view their work-version platform as dull in comparison to its exciting consumer cousins.
Fair enough. But what if you brought users to the information first and provided an interface with them to connect with the colleagues who own the information? That interface wouldn’t try to mimic the personal relationships that friends and family have, but instead be designed for work.
What’s needed is an application that can bring together all of the content available in your organization via a search interface that allows interaction with others through that content.
Enterprise Search as Expertise Search
One of the critical differences between consumer social networking versus business social networking is whom you are building networks with and what information you share with them. At work, you’re not looking for people to "friend you," you are searching for someone with the expertise to help with an important project. It is called work and not fun for a reason.
Moreover, you probably don’t really care about what books your colleagues love or what recent movies they’ve seen. But you are likely interested in what research they’ve published and what reports or presentations they’ve authored, tagged or written comments about. This is where enterprise search—specifically social search—comes in.
When organizations use tools such as Vivisimo Velocity social search interface to vote, rate, tag and annotate search results, not only is the tag stored in the search index as information about the document, or metadata, but so is information on who created the tag and when it was created.
For example, when an employee (let’s call her Joyce Reed) tags a search result with the word "mobile," the system not only knows that it was Joyce Reed who created that specific tag on July 2, 2008, it also knows that she is from the marketing team. (See Figure 1, PDF or Page S10, print version.) These details then become part of the metadata and are a potential source of new knowledge and information related to the document, just as the original metadata such as author and publication date are.
Social Search at Work
So how do employees use all of this information stored in the search index to network with their peers? Let’s use the example on the left to illustrate.
First, a user types the word "mobile" into the search box on the interface and hits enter. Next, the search engine will return results matching that query and will also return information about potential experts (i.e. Joyce Reed) regarding the query "mobile." The search index queried can have Joyce’s employee data such as photos, contact details, authorship, biographical profiles and recent tagging activity that it has extracted from multiple data repositories.
Each potential expert’s information is combined into a single search result, delivered to the user by a mash-up that appears at the top of the search interface. With these mash-ups, employees can easily find topical experts within their organization via search. The searcher can then reach out to any experts they find directly using the contact information provided. Alternatively, they could also navigate through their colleague’s tags and other metadata—such as authorship—to understand what other content has been identified as useful by that person without ever picking up the phone or sending an email.
The Future: Personalized Social Search
Conducting a search and looking through user metadata is just one way to find experts, though. In the future, you will have access to not only user metadata, but access to personal profiles that provide a snapshot of an employee and their activities in real time. Above the search results is the most current information about an employee. With just a quick glimpse, you can quickly view a co-worker’s most recently authored documents, their team members and even the last few email exchanges you have had with that person.
By using the navigation elements shown on the left, you can easily identify the file types that someone has published, their top-used tags and see a graph representing when emails have been shared with you. By including email in the search platform’s personal profiles, you begin to create an environment that cannot only connect you with colleagues, but one that is personalized for you.
Leveraging the Power of People
Social networking within the enterprise doesn’t have to be a disappointment, either for you or for your end-users. By not expecting users to enter data into yet one more application and by not trying to duplicate an interface designed to foster interpersonal communications between friends and family, you’re halfway to success.
Deploying an enterprise search platform that can bring all of the information to your users with an easy-to-use interface that allows them to network with one another regarding that information will get you the rest of the way there.