Should professional social networks make a play for the enterprise?

Social software has been making its way into the enterprise for a while, but usually from vendors that are experts at enterprise needs. Now it appears that professional social networks on the Internet will make an attempt at the space. What will this mean given that they already have a large percentage of your workers using their services externally today, yet little practical enterprise experience?
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor on

Recently Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, indicated that the professional social networking giant was seriously considering expanding their services into internal capabilities such as enterprise social networking. As the world's biggest and most mature business-focused social network, the move potentially makes a lot of sense, particularly as they are now a public company looking for important new sources of revenue.

LinkedIn's signature advantage, unlike many new Enterprise 2.0 entrants, is that it has an enormous base of existing business users it can enlist as foot soldiers to penetrate the enterprise. Just by adding some features to the current service it could, for example, provide enterprise microblogging to its existing users which could be kept private within the company if desired.

By making LinkedIn useful for internal collaboration, social intranets, and more, it could suddenly become much more relevant to those looking at inexpensive approaches that also will have a high likelihood of adoption (which, in a way, is already baked in with LinkedIn's large existing user base.) Enterprise social networking software still comes at a real premium compared to the free social networks of the Web, so the revenue model could be very compelling to the company.

In my research, I find that there's strong correlation with the speed and success of internal adoption of social media and the level of investment made. Given this, LinkedIn could potentially make a play through the front door, or it could just come in the back door until enterprises need the administration, security, and policy control features once they become aware of a significant volume of work happening in LinkedIn's new internal social channels. Conversely, LinkedIn could just go to businesses and show them this data, since they can provide the social analytics to potential customers whose workers are already having more success that the company was aware of.

The back door approach to adoption works too. Enabling enterprise-wide social conversations virally and for free was very successful for Yammer (now at 3 million plus users), but they had to start out from scratch with their user base. With LinkedIn sitting on top of 100 million users, about a quarter of which are active every month, and it could have a much faster and easier road to success.

However, with LinkedIn, I suspect the story won't be quite this simple. In fact, I think at first many organizations are going to wonder if it's the right move to let LinkedIn become a core capability for supporting the way they communicate together. There is also the issue of data storage, reliability, and protection of privacy and intellectual property. Never mind the now-classic enterprise social media worries around risk, control, and trust. In fact, once LinkedIn is handling important and sensitive company information, it will run headfirst into all the implementation and governance issues surrounding enterprise social software.

But all of this isn't likely to prevent LinkedIn from trying to flip its large base of users into paying customers on the enterprise-side. One of the reasons is that LinkedIn finally has real competition. There are now a number of professional social networks that have entered the scene including XING, Viadeo, and BranchOut. Those these are either vertical or geographically specific, the user base they are building is in many cases climbing into the same order of magnitude as LinkedIn (see visual above.) They are no doubt considering the same move for financial and growth reasons.

What Do Businesses Need In a Social Network?

So, given that I believe LinkedIn is likely to do this, what would make a move into enterprise social networking successful for them or their competition? Several key things I believe:

  1. Provide the right social features. This means the basic ones as well as the capabilities often missing in the enterprise. Microblogging is a given, but e-mail integration would be huge, as would connection to or support for simultaneous document editing. The ability to use it as a form of intranet would complete the core capabilities that most business users of social networks need. Reconciling enterprise identity with social identity should also be a checklist feature to ensure they are fully reconciled with IT.
  2. Have a strong security story. Security is the biggest worry of enterprises when it comes to social tools. Be very clear what the features are (and have them) to detect improper worker usage, inadvertent data exposure, detecting malware, and so on. Be abundantly clear on how keeping corporate information private works and why competitors could not get access to other firms' internal information via the network.
  3. Use the intrinsic strengths of being an external social network. This means at least two things: 1) Make it easy to securely connect and collaborate across the full social business spectrum including workers, trading partners, and customers and 2) Take good advantage of the knowledge of the full social graph that workers have beyond their organization to derive insight including expertise location, hiring, innovation opportunities, and more. Not doing this means being just another plain vanilla social collaboration tool with either little differentiation or the ability to compete with today's sophisticated and mature Enterprise 2.0 offerings. In my opinion, it's this deep connectedness with a large, existing user base that makes professional social networks such an interesting internal social network play.
  4. Aim at the right part of the market. Frankly, for a variety of reasons including control, hosting, and vendor experience with enterprises, many large companies aren't going to look at professional social networks to provide social media capabilities, at least for a while. But the market for small and medium sized businesses is ripe for these features. However the ability to drive high levels of adoption (if borne out), might in fact make the enterprise-facing features of PSNs interesting fairly quickly to larger firms.

Personally, I think LinkedIn, BranchOut, and their other large competitors have genuine disruptive potential to make their move while the Enterprise 2.0 market is still somewhat immature. Making a strong enough play, targeted at the right audience, could genuinely change the enterprise social networking space. On the other hand, the hundreds of existing products in the space have made it a pretty crowded market. It will refreshing to see an entirely new take enterprise social software emerge in the space. The question is whether organizations will see the value. I'd put this on the list of potentially significant social business trends to watch for now.

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