The 6 commandments of social networking at work

Businesses ignore the technology at their peril. Naive use is just as risky.

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3. Thou shalt set boundaries.

There are a number of situations where you'll have to figure out where to draw lines. The first and most obvious: You plainly don't want to keep your supervisor in the loop on your yearlong Scrabulous battle with your brother.

However, integrating colleagues and clients in your network can prove to be very tricky. Do you automatically accede to your boss's request that you "friend" her on Facebook? Do you add the colleague you find to be grossly incompetent to your LinkedIn network? These are the kinds of questions you'll have to figure out how to answer.

The other boundary dilemma in social networking boils down to this: What happens if your workplace concludes that your network is its asset? Ron Solish points out that professional network groups are analogous to Rolodexes. "If employees leave, why should they get access to those networks?" he asks.

Solish says workplaces are still evaluating how to manage networks of contacts that its employees use in a professional capacity. Just be advised: The issue of who owns the online client list will be emerging for many organizations. Another issue, Solish says, will be whether former employees can still participate in employer-specific groups on networking sites.

4. Thou shalt not limit thy employees' time on social networks...

...unless it seriously cuts into their productivity. The primary value of a social network is the aggregation of people on it. Block your employees from getting on a network, and you block their access to developing a far-flung group of people who can act as free advisers, leads for new businesses or prospective new hires.

"If you're isolated, you're of no value to a manager," says Tom Hayes, author of "Jump Point: How Network Culture Is Revolutionizing Business." He adds, "And if you're management, ask yourself: What walled garden has ever prospered over time?"

Hayes says that social networks effectively disseminate information about industry trends, product announcements and new talents. He adds, "Your best employees are the ones who are the most connected and most current."

Block says that social networks' real value rests in making an added connection that previously was not present, especially if those connections lead to offline partnerships.

5. Thou shalt not leave thy employees to founder, but lay down workplace guidelines.

This way, you and your employer don't look incompetent or make a highly public gaffe. Block recommends the following steps:

Locate your internal expert on social networking, or find an outside guru. Then make sure you define what purpose your social network participation will have. "Simply registering for LinkedIn or Twitter will not get you anything in return," he says. "Establish goals and how they can be met."

Finally, experiment. "Ask questions of others online. Share information. Become a resource, a voice, or a trusted personal brand that others will come to recognize."

David Nour, the author of the forthcoming Relationship Economics, stresses that any involvement in social networking needs to be consistent and congruent with your company's focus and reputation.

He spells out some very specific work-related uses for social networking tools. They can be seen as the guidelines for workplace use: "Use Twitter to keep up with subject-matter experts; use Facebook and LinkedIn to identify and connect with experts, different perspectives and unique insights; use Flickr to share pictures of product development direction, ideas or complex visual scenarios."

Be prepared for a swell in workplace policies regarding employees and their social networking activities. Solish says, "I'm starting to get a lot of requests from employers that we develop policies restricting access to social networking."

6. Thou shalt remember: We are all still figuring this out.

There are few hard-and-fast rules for effectively deploying social networks in a professional environment so far. But everyone must start somewhere: There's no point to being online if you can't make it work.

"Above all else, remember that no one has perfected social networking, and it's an open market for growth," Block says.

This story, "The 6 commandments of social networking at work" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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