Social networking: network gain

It may once have been regarded as a specialised technology for specialised
purposes, but today few would dispute that the web is anything less than an
integrated business tool. However, it is its transformation into a social medium
through social networking sites that presents a major dichotomy for companies.
Whether staff should have access to these sites in the workplace is a hotly
debated issue.

While some consider social networking sites as a useful way of keeping in
contact with clients and each other, other companies are concerned about
security and potential breaches of client confidentiality if the technology is
used carelessly, and the negative impact it could have on productivity.

For example, nearly half (43%) of employers have blocked access to the social
networking site Facebook in the workplace, according to recent research by IT
security specialist Sophos. According to the 600 employees Sophos surveyed, an
additional 7% said that Facebook access was restricted and only those with a
business requirement were allowed to visit the site.

The debate echoes the early reactions by business to the use of email, now a
mainstream communication platform.

The advent of web 2.0 signals a shift in the way the internet is being used.
Offering interactive website content, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds,
blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, web 2.0 is
changing the way we interact with technology and each other by promoting
collaboration and information sharing. Although there is a perception that web
2.0 technology is confined to social sites, businesses can benefit from these
social collaboration technologies so that their own websites are useful and
relevant to both clients and employees.

This revolution in technology has opened up both business opportunities for
companies and new communication channels with clients and staff, which are not
only removing geographical constraints but also changing working patterns. Web
and video conferencing, instant messaging, secure work areas via websites, and
web and mobile integration are just some of today’s technologies that enable
people to work together collaboratively and often remotely.

For effective collaboration, a company must have the capability to adopt
collaborative technologies in a meaningful way, and be able to implement them in
its business strategy. It is also worth bearing in mind that the quality of
collaboration depends on a company’s culture and the business processes it has
in place.

An open business culture where there is cooperation among staff will be more
receptive to integrating new technologies than a more traditional, hierarchical
structure. Business processes, too, must support collaboration. If an external
website provides users with an email contact facility, for example, then a
system must be in place to monitor and respond to emails accordingly.

These same collaborative technologies enable businesses to create a sense of
community on their public-facing sites and to draw clients in ­ for example, by
encouraging them to contribute content in the form of ratings or reviews.
Extranets, too, are becoming a more collaborative space, including areas where
clients can access the same data and information that professionals are using.

Internally, interactive technologies can be applied to intranets and
knowledge management systems to improve communication, staff motivation and
They offer the same networking opportunities to disseminate information and for
staff to seek advice from specialists within the organisation to help them do
their job, albeit it as a working group.

The freedoms introduced by these technologies bring new responsibilities.
Today’s culture of 24/7 connectivity has obliterated the demarcation between
work and social life, individuals and employees. It is up to companies to
develop appropriate governance to encourage good working practices so that
collaborative technology enhances rather than reduces business performance.

In real terms, those companies that are embracing collaboration via today’s
interactive web are benefiting in a variety of ways. They are able to respond
immediately to new business opportunities, to transact business regardless of
location, and to reduce the time and money spent by employees travelling to and
from business meetings.

Collaboration also has advantages for staff, enabling them to work as part of
a team beyond the confines of the traditional office and in different time
zones. Not only does this give them greater flexibility in where and how they
work, but also greater control over their own work-life balance.

Where collaborative technologies are implemented, every business will
naturally be looking for cost-effective solutions and a positive return on
investment. That is why it is crucial for any organisation, whether it is an SME
or a multinational, to understand its own business objectives when deciding what
it wants to achieve from its website, so that the application and collaboration
tools selected add value to its overall business performance.

Facebook face-off

Optimising the business benefits of social networking

• Determine what you want your website and associated collaborative
technologies to achieve in terms of business performance

• Ensure your culture and business processes are capable of supporting
collaborative technology

• Set parameters for staff access to social networking sites in the workplace
that are appropriate for your organisation — and communicate them to employees

• Put clear policies in place for blogs so that client confidentiality is
respected and the context in which your organisation’s name can be used is
clearly defined

• Agree what constitutes a disciplinary matter in terms of misuse of
web-based technologies

• Instill a sense of responsibility among staff and teach them good working
practices so they benefit professionally

• Understand that the principles of good design, such as navigation and
search, will change when creating social-based, collaborative sites

Nigel Grace is managing director of web usability
specialist Human Factors Europe

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