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Company-wide social networks could spell the end of office e-mail

Nigel Wallis, research director, application services of IDC Canada, stops to talk with co-worker George Bulat (right) director client hardware research.

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

In most offices across Canada, the concept of social networking begins and ends with employees surreptitiously checking Facebook throughout the day.

But as social networking websites continue to rise in popularity and prominence, a growing number of businesses are looking to adopt that model for the workplace. Instead of stunting productivity and encouraging a slacker mentality, employers are recognizing that harnessing the strengths of a social network can actually have the opposite effect.

"People have seen the value that social networking has provided in the consumer space. They've come to recognize that as that space matures … they can do this in [the]employee space as well," said David Stewart, vice-president of product management at Yammer, an enterprise social network service launched in 2008.

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That doesn't mean your boss is likely to advise staff to play FarmVille any time soon, but it does signal that company-wide social networks could change the way many employees work. Some experts even predict enterprise social networks could spell the end of e-mail altogether.

The process of connecting employees through social networks is part of a wider concept known as Enterprise 2.0. Andrew McAfee, author and research scientist at MIT's Sloan School of Management, coined this term to describe how companies can apply innovative Web-based concepts in the business world. Examples can include internal wikis, microblogs and social networks.

Forrester Research, a Massachusetts-based market research firm, has predicted that spending on Enterprise 2.0 would reach nearly $5-billion by 2013, with enterprise social networking taking up the lion's share.

Company-wide social networks are attractive because they offer employees a place to spontaneously share ideas and receive feedback. Employees are more engaged, especially those working in off-site locations. Such networks can also streamline operations and put an end to annoying, time-wasting and hard-to-follow e-mail chains between large groups of employees.

Unlike e-mail, enterprise social networks can store and keep detailed records of public exchanges between employees and track how ideas evolve. For instance, instead of e-mailing everyone in the company with a question, employees can seek answers on the network. Not only is that less intrusive than e-mail, but it also keeps a record of the response that others can reference in the future, Mr. Stewart said.

But many challenges stand in the way – including persuading employees to use the thing.

"Social networks tend to be more opt-in technologies, so knowledge workers can fall back on using e-mail and picking up the phone," said Rob Koplowitz, vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester. "They need to have a little bit more handholding in adopting social networking as a way of working."

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Experts say the biggest key is ensuring top-level managers are not only onboard but committed to using the network as part of the corporate culture.

"The senior management buy-in is reasonably important," said Nigel Wallis, research director at research firm IDC Canada. "If the only people who jump on it are your interns, it's going to die."

To ensure that companies use these systems, they must collaborate with IT, install new servers, offer company-wide training and define the company's strategies and goals of enterprise social networking, Mr. Koplowitz. said.

"This stuff is very disruptive," he said. "If you're not willing to recognize and accept those disruptions, then you're probably going to stall an enterprise social initiative right from the get-go."

Launching incrementally in various departments could encourage participation and is "a better way to share notions and ideas," Mr. Wallis added.

"There's a lot of friction," he said. "If you don't get to critical mass fast enough, then people say, 'Oh, it's lame.'"

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But say a company does get full-fledged support from top-level staff. The question then becomes how to measure whether an enterprise social network is a success, and that's a harder task than many may realize, according to industry experts.

"The problem is it is … very fuzzy in terms of the real benefits," Mr. Wallis said. "How does it actually improve your company?"

It's difficult, if not impossible, to put a value on collaboration, exchange of ideas or streamlining the way employees do business, he said. As a result, measuring how successful an enterprise social network is may simply require faith on the part of the company.

"You wouldn't get those spontaneous leaps of sharing and knowledge without things along the lines of Enterprise 2.0," Mr. Wallis said. "But on the other hand, how do you track serendipity?"

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