...the network includes dozens of "business hubs and clubs" which can provide introductions to trusted partners and suppliers, Cunningham explained. Other members have used the site's video and other features to provide tutorials, advertisements and demonstrations of their own products, and linked to external websites and blogs from their profiles. "It's another way to market yourself and your business to the right people," stated Cunningham.
Of course, the most widely known business social-networking platform is LinkedIn, which now has 1.5 million members in the UK and 15 million members worldwide. The site focuses entirely on building networks between professionals, and has members in 96 of the top 100 FTSE companies, according to LinkedIn's O'Donnell.
Although LinkedIn has a reputation for being used primarily by people looking for a new job, O'Donnell said the platform has many other uses for business networkers. "What we encourage people to do is to solve business problems using the network," she said. LinkedIn has an answers service through which users can post business questions and receive responses from anyone on the network. Users can link questions and answers to their LinkedIn profile, and post these onto public forums. "If the chief technology officer at Southwest Airlines answers a question about travel, you know he probably has a good idea what he's talking about," said O'Donnell, "whereas the guy next to you in the office might not have done any business travel in years."
LinkedIn is also widely used by professional services firms and people in sales and marketing functions to research potential clients rather than cold calling, O'Donnell added. LinkedIn members can search the network by name and job title and, once they have found the correct contact, they can see if they have any links that connect them to that person. "Rather than just calling switchboard and asking for Bob Smith in HR, now you can contact your colleague and ask them to introduce you to Bob, and you've become a recommended link. The result is that he is way more likely to take your call, because you've come recommended," O'Donnell said.
Whichever social-networking platform you opt to use, it's important to get the ground rules right. "There should absolutely be a policy, and remember: anything that isn't written down is just rumour," said Cluley. "So make sure that people know what is expected of them in terms of using privacy settings, and what information is and isn't appropriate for sharing."
Cluley recommended that companies weigh up carefully the risks of using a public social-networking tool against the anticipated benefits. "In some cases, it will be that the risks are great enough to justify building your own social-networking application internally," he said. "Never forget that when you're using Facebook for business communication the data is only as secure as Facebook makes it. You're putting your data in the hands of a third party and you should make the same checks you would on any other third party handling corporate data."
However, analysts agree that this sector is changing rapidly and the coming years are likely to see the lines between enterprise software and public networking sites becoming blurred. "The challenge the mainstream suppliers face at the moment is that the tools they offer have the right functionality but they aren't elegant or intuitive," Prentice said. "But it's something they are definitely working on."
Bradshaw expects to see big announcements in the coming months as enterprise vendors announce products that will sit within the popular networking sites. "Vendors are definitely looking at how people collaborate in social networks, and looking at how to use those capabilities," he said. "I expect some big announcements from surprising quarters. But we shouldn't be surprised if vendors take on board the social networks — they would be foolish not to."