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A quick, incomplete guide to social networking tools for business

Social networking is hot.  Businesses see value in improving how team members work together: “Internal social networking platforms more valuable to organizations” .  There are a number of possible approaches; the best choice depends on what problems you want to address first, the size of the business, and the availability of internal Information Technology staff and resources.

The first step into social networking is usually either to improve connections within the team or promote better collaboration.

If you want to improve connections within your team, then you’ll probably want to consider any of a number of toolkits that support a combination of user profiles and blogs; you’ll want to initially use the blogs for status reporting as well as documenting work.  User profiles should be maintained by the employee with the provision to add and remove profiles by someone else in the company.  Social messaging tools allow team members to share short messages with each other and within groups; Twitter is the most famous tool in this space.

To improve collaboration, you want a shared document creation tool, either a wiki or SharePoint if you’re working in a Microsoft Office shop; you can use SharePoint to run an internal wiki as well if you wish.  It is possible to use a wiki to provide user profiles and blogs but its harder to do well and to scale effectively; this is one reason companies often start with a wiki and then expand into other social networking tools.

You also need to decide if you want to run the tools inside your company or use social networking tools located outside your business (the software-as-a-service model, or SaaS).  On the positive side, SaaS solutions may save you money and, in my experience, provide a good level of quality and service.  The down sides are limited customization and, more importantly, that your data lives on someone else’s computer; if you are very worried about corporate espionage, you should ask questions about the security of your information if you choose a SaaS solution.  The following web links have good short descriptions of tools available in this space:

Most of these tools do not include a wiki or social messaging solutions.  Most internet service providers (ISPs) provide a working wiki as part of their subscription software.  Yammer is probably the largest and least expensive social messaging hosted service at 1 USD per seat per month.  Perhaps the most complete SaaS solution today is Socialtext which includes all the major tools you’d want from a social networking platform including wiki, blog, social messaging, and integration with Microsoft Office documents; a recent entrant in this field is MuseWorx.

If you want to run the solution internally, Socialtext provides an appliance solution.  There are open source toolkits you can use – see “Top 10 open-source social networking platforms and tools” for more information.  Jive SBS is a Java J2EE social networking solution; if you have a large J2EE plant, you may want to look into this toolkit.  The most common wiki tool is MediaWiki, which powers Wikipedia; I installed on my account at my ISP in about 20 minutes.  And there’s an open source social messaging toolkit called Laconi.ca; this is not trivial to install but works.  If your company develops software and is already using Atlassian products, you may wish to consider Confluence.  These solutions mostly require Linux, so you’ll want to make sure you have that knowledge available inside your company.  HyperOffice is yet another solution.

You can also run your own SharePoint server as an internal social networking solution.

Don’t forget instance messaging (IM) or chat; if you’re concerned about your intellectual property, you might want to use MSN which has encryption options, or run an internal instant messaging service; Jabber is one of the most popular open-source IM solutions run internally at companies.

Lastly, consider your mobile workforce – its often easier to use smart phones to access hosted solutions than it is to access internal ones.  Will you want your salespersons to access information in your wiki right before they talk to a client?

Because this market segment is immature, you should look into how you would migrate data in case your vendor goes away, or if you need to switch vendors to gain new capabilities.  You should also evaluate the number of customers and health of the vendor before selecting a solution, as there will be some amount of lock-in for any selection.

But you need to balance the risk of an immature market with the value social networking tools can provide to your company.  In addition remember that your selection of tools is less important than how you roll the tools out for your team to use, and how you will show your team the value of these tools in their day-to-day work.

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