The average internet user now spends three hours a week on social-networking sites, according to research organisation YouGov. That adds up to six days a year, and makes social networking more popular than online banking, shopping or music downloads.
However, with growing popularity comes growing distrust, according to Steve Prentice, director of research with Gartner. "Every new technology platform is derided as frivolous in the early days," he said. "And, certainly, you would struggle to do a classical ROI analysis and see any benefit of using Facebook or LinkedIn within the enterprise."
There is a common perception that people simply have too much fun using Facebook or YouTube, said David Bradshaw, an analyst with Ovum. "People use Facebook to find a date, or LinkedIn to find a job — but certainly not to do their current jobs better, in most cases," he said. "There's a reason why people call it 'social not-working'."
So, is social networking simply a productivity threat or can companies learn to live with Facebook and its ilk? "My gut instinct tells me that we're going to end up with a Facebook for the enterprise, or Facebook in the enterprise," said Bradshaw. "There's too much at stake for organisations not to start looking at bringing this stuff under their control."
For starters, companies are realising that levels of communication are increasing on social-networking platforms — outside the control of the corporate IT department. In addition, companies have a lot to gain from social networking, according to some experts.
There are some pretty obvious benefits to using social-networking applications as a business tool, according to Graham Cluley, senior technical consultant with security firm Sophos. "It's a great research and recruitment tool," he said. "You can check people out, see what their career history is like, who they associate with, even what their conduct might be like outside the office."
However, Cluley said that the benefits of social networking could be taken a step further. "If you look at Facebook, it's a platform, and you could easily develop applications to sit on top of that, to do virtually anything around collaboration," he said. For example, firms might consider creating a messaging application that workers can log onto while on the road, or a quick reference guide for employees that pulls in links as part of news feed.
Crucially, social networking provides a ready-made knowledge-management platform, said Bradshaw. "In an increasingly competitive world, the most valuable asset companies have is their knowledge, and the one thing this type of platform lets you do is find people with the knowledge you need, and use those skills better in collaboration with other people."
Wasn't this what knowledge management was designed for? "Yes," said Bradshaw — but few employees are using enterprise knowledge-management tools. "The reality is that people might use the knowledge-management tool to accomplish very specific processes, but only where the corporate manager says they have to," he said. "Very few organisations benefit fully from knowledge management because it's not a tool people choose to use. In fact, I'd say the term 'knowledge management' is pretty much discredited."
The difference between enterprise collaboration platforms and social networking isn't simply to do with user attitudes. "Social-networking platforms are a very different beast to enterprise collaboration tools, whether that's something like SharePoint or MSN," said Elisabeth O'Donnell, international director with social-networking site LinkedIn. "We don't provide actual collaboration on documents, or the ability to free-form chat — but social networks provide an overlay of relationships on top of business applications that Microsoft's collaboration packages don't have."
If a company is interested in really using social networking to improve knowledge sharing and collaboration, it's important to understand that social networking is about more than just MySpace, Facebook and Bebo. "There are dozens of social networks out there, and many of them are about as far from frivolous as you can get," said Prentice.
Viadeo is an example of the new breed of business-focused social-networking sites. Its three million members use the site to find partners, suppliers, funding or employees, said Peter Cunningham, country manager for Viadeo UK. "On our site, most profiles are linked closely to a business, and they're written to promote a business, or as an invitation for potential partners and clients," said Cunningham. "The idea is to use social-networking technology to enable members to share non-core business advice and information."
For example, Viadeo members in France have used the platform to find overseas distributors for products. This is easier to do in a social-networking setting because the site allows for precise keyword searching, and...