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Social networking gets down to business

This article appears in the issue June 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 6]
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Social networking software gives users the ability to create individual profiles that foster interaction among people based on their interests, expertise or work activities. First made available on consumer-oriented sites such as Facebook, social networking is beginning to find a solid niche in the business world. Forrester predicts that social networking will account for nearly half of the $4.6 billion market it forecasts for Web 2.0 products by 2013. Other products considered to be in the Web 2.0 category include blogs, wikis, RSS, mashups, podcasting and widgets.

Interestingly, few of the leading enterprise content management (ECM) and collaboration platforms have aggressively incorporated social networking components.

"ECM vendors have been focusing more on compliance than on collaboration recently," says Tony Byrne, founder of CMS Watch. "Open Text provides some social computing on top of its document management, and IBM offers profiling through its Lotus platform." However, many would-be users of social networking do not have major ECM products in place, and can choose among the many standalone Web 2.0 suites that include this feature.

Although some observers have pointed to the benefits of putting a more human face on collaboration, others have argued that interacting via individual profiles is a nonproductive use of time. The main change recently is the incorporation of social networks into established business processes. Specific examples include recruiting, customer service and innovation. Once they become integral to an organization’s activities, social networks achieve a level of legitimacy and value that rates them a secure spot amidst enterprise applications.

Hewitt Associates provides human resources business process outsourcing and consulting services. Its 23,000 employees serve more than 3,000 clients in 33 countries. As a people-oriented organization, Hewitt places a high value on maintaining contact with its retirees and with alumni who have gone on to other jobs. Such connections allow individuals in both groups to refer talent to Hewitt or to be rehired themselves. The company wanted to use a social networking software product to facilitate those connections.

The choice of a product was expedited by the fact that two employees involved in the process had used SelectMinds previously and had both been impressed by it. Hewitt challenged SelectMinds with a very aggressive timeframe for implementation.

"SelectMinds came back with a detailed schedule of weekly deliverables," says Erin Peterson, global head of talent acquisition at Hewitt. "Our project manager worked closely with the team, and we were able to implement the system and roll out communication internally and externally right on time."

The Hewitt Alumni Network was launched in December 2008, and within the first four months, more than 2,600 alumni and retirees in North America and India were registered on the site. "That number is more than double what we expected," Peterson notes. Thirty percent of the North American retirees and 7.5 percent of alumni are registered,

Members of the Hewitt Alumni Network sign onto a homepage that includes a "spotlight" featuring a member of the network, news items, events and polls on various topics. From there, the member can go to his or her own profile, where a person’s interests and skills can be posted, or to a number of discussion forums.

"Our focus is on alumni helping alumni," Peterson explains. "The Career Center is a place where members can respond to job openings or post their own." Hewitt has received very positive feedback regarding the site content and members’ use.

"Although we have not established a definite connection between the network and our rehire rate, in the few months the site has been up, we have successfully rehired nearly 50 alumni," she says.

Hewitt Associates plans to expand the alumni network to include former associates in Europe, Latin America and the rest of Asia by the end of 2010. "We are very pleased with what we have accomplished using SelectMinds," Peterson says. "It has helped us maintain and nurture a network well beyond what would be possible with any other method."

Developing a network of corporate alumni has many benefits, according to Anne Berkowitch, CEO of SelectMinds. "Sometimes former employees become customers, partners or rehires," she says, "so keeping in touch can be beneficial on many fronts. And their referrals of potential new hires tend to be good matches because they know the firm."

A private network composed of former colleagues generates a higher level of trust than an open, public network. "No one has a screen name," she explains, "so everyone’s identity is known, and the interactions are therefore on a deeper level."

Companies have generally been convinced of the value of connectivity and sharing information, but communities based on social networking sometimes lack focus.

"Organizations are realizing that they need to incorporate social networking in the context of specific business processes," Berkowitch says. For example, using social networking tools, experienced salespeople can offer insights to junior staff members in small doses and in a casual style.

"Recruiting and sales are two functional areas in which we have a strong presence," she adds. "They are both business processes in which a corporate alumni network can be a significant asset."

Built on SharePoint

When employees at the CME Federal Credit Union start up their computers, the first thing they see is a personalized home page that shows their profile and the internal communities with which they interact. The page is populated with information from whatever content feeds the employee has selected and is authorized to see, which might include financial information relating to loans and deposits, newsfeeds or personnel forms that are sent to the HR department. The individualized page is presented using Social Sites, a software product from NewsGator.

What all the content has in common is that it is sourced from a SharePoint repository at CME. Financial data that was formerly distributed in a less systematic fashion using spreadsheets now shows up in a dashboard-style presentation. Blogs and wikis that support quick and easy contribution of content are also provided by SharePoint. Social Sites extracts the appropriate data from SharePoint and publishes it to each user’s page. Employees subscribe to various feeds: for example, the time-off requests submitted to HR. They avoid the barrage of e-mails that they might otherwise have faced

For CME, which has 26,000 members throughout Ohio, a primary driver was the desire for improved customer service. Providing better information in a timely fashion helps CME meet that goal. Employees are able to tag information relating to customer concerns, categorize it by topic and share it with colleagues. They can also use the profiles to search for experts within the company who can help them resolve customer-related issues. With a work force distributed throughout numerous branches, the social networking capability provided by Social Sites lets employees share information and offer their insights to each other on a continuous basis.

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