How to tame the social network at work

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Another solution: "Don't hire stupid employees," says Jan Aleman, CEO for Servoy, a developer of hybrid SaaS and on-premises software with 108 employees. "At Servoy people already know what they can and cannot say on Facebook. As an open source company we don't have a lot of secrets. You can already see everything our tech guys are doing, because we commit our code to a public place. But if you had a bigger company or less intelligent people working for you, you'd probably want some guidelines in place."

Taming the social network: Tapping insights from 500 million of your closest friendsDespite the difficulties, having a presence on social networks is rapidly becoming a requirement for doing business. Yet some enterprises are still balking, notes Underwood.

"It's like we're back in 1993, when enterprises were trying to decide whether to participate in this thing called the Internet or simply ignore it," he says.

For things like recruiting, marketing, and customer service, using public social nets is a no-brainer. For example, Servoy actively trolls Facebook groups built around fourth-generation programming languages like FoxPro and recruits their members to webinars. It also uses its Facebook presence to solicit feedback from customers.

"It's good to talk to your customers and find out what they think is important," says Aleman. "Otherwise you could develop your products in a way you think is best but isn't what the market wants."

IBM has folded Facebook and Twitter into its corporate communications strategy, just as it did with blogs five years ago, says Rooney.

"We have people on Facebook actively talking about the things they're working on at IBM, which we see as a big positive," says Rooney. "When people are looking for a particular kind of expertise, Facebook makes it more possible to discover that at IBM. Social media gives us a pathway to engage directly with clients, demonstrate openness, project the future of what we're working on. It's a way to collect feedback on what we're working on and improve our product offerings."

Language learning company Rosetta Stone recently integrated its Parature CRM and customer support systems with Facebook, offering the same knowledge bases and support options like live chat on Facebook as it does on its its own website, as well as the same ability to capture all of that real-time customer data in its CRM. Launched in August, Rosetta's Facebook page had already garnered more than 22,000 fans at press time.

A big difference between social media and typical online support channels is "the viral nature of a positive experience," says Parature founder Duke Chung. "When someone posts on a Facebook wall or uses our live chat and gets an answer to their question, we give them the option to share that experience with their friends. They can say, 'I just got my answer and now I'm back to learning Japanese faster than ever,' and 500 of their friends see it. It lets Rosetta's customers market their great experiences via Facebook streams."

The other big advantage, says Rosetta Stone senior vice president Jay Topper, is how much data companies can glean from sites like Facebook -- for absolutely free.

"Companies spend so much money trying to get information from their customers, while places like Facebook are essentially a free 24/7 focus group where every day thousands of people are providing you with a constant flow of information," he says. "It's mind-boggling how much you could mine from this."

Taming the social network: Your own private social networkOf course, you probably don't want your product road map being retweeted by Ashton Kutcher. You don't really need 10,000 people on Facebook to "like" ideas your development team is still mulling. It's usually not smart to post photos from company parties on Flickr or MySpace. Public social networks are poor solutions for a great many things.

But if you want the benefits of social nets -- collaboration across geographies, instant feedback, and real-time communication -- without the risks associated with public exposure, a private social network may be just the ticket.

For example, AT&T uses Spigit's social media technology to create a mass virtual water cooler for the telecom giant. About 45,000 employees -- roughly one-sixth of AT&T's global workforce -- participate in The Innovation Pipeline, its online brainstorming community. The company has already implemented one idea suggested by employees: creating a TV channel that shows the differences between HDTV and normal resolution, to help AT&T sell high-definition programming packages to its broadband U-Verse customers. Several more are in development, says Patrick Asher, innovation leader for the company.

If an idea is too good -- or such a no-brainer that it deserves immediate implementation -- company executives can pull it from Spigit sites before it leaks to competitors, notes Spigit CEO Paul Pluschkell.

"It's all about bringing ideas to market that much quicker," he says. "Until you execute on it, an idea is just an idea."

Gaming network IGN Entertainment uses Yammer, a hosted social networking service, to collaborate and comment on each others' ideas. It began when a single IGN engineer signed up for Yammer and now has spread virally to the entire company, says Greg Silva, vice president of HR. As the geeks critique, management can see who's contributing which ideas, and gauge how engaged they are with the company and the industry as a whole.

"Yammer gives our leadership team the opportunity to see which employees are consistently contributing ideas and adding to the conversation," Silva says. "And because we operate in five locations worldwide, it gives our employees the opportunity to engage in any discussion, no matter where it started."

When Synaptics, a $500 million maker of touchscreen technology, was looking for a "21st-century communications tool" that allowed people to collaborate 24/7, it turned to Broadvision's Clearvale, says Jim Harrington, senior vice president of global human resources for the company.

"Too many times when you send out email people just delete it without reading," he says. "Clearvale enables us to build communities inside our company that are able to communicate with external communities for things like recruiting. It also allows us to communicate between different internal communities such as marketing and product development, or between product development and human resources."

Internally or externally, the rest of the world is adopting social media. If your company isn't there, they'll just end up talking about you behind your back.

"The first thing you have to understand is that, if you're not present on social media, if you don't have brand and corporate advocates in these spaces, you'll have no opportunities to address concerns and correct problems," says IBM's Rooney. "You're not going to fix it or protect your brand by ignoring them. If you're engaging authentically and directly, if you exhibit openness and a willingness to listen, you've got a much greater opportunity to change hearts and minds."

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This story, "How to tame the social network at work" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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