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Contacts and connections: an array of options

Business is built on relationships as much as it is on information, and an increasing number of software options are available to help establish and develop relationships. They range from contact management products that collect information while running in the background to Facebook-like enterprise solutions for proactive sharing of professional information.

Reed Smith, a global law firm employing almost 1,700 lawyers worldwide, is implementing ContactNet from Contact Networks to leverage its extensive base of professional contacts.

"Relationships are fundamental to obtaining business in the legal field," says Thomas Baldwin, CKO at Reed Smith. "We needed a robust solution that would help us make use of contact information without taking any time away from our busy attorneys."

Baldwin, who purchased ContactNet at a previous firm, is assembling a suite of KM solutions ranging from Recommind enterprise search to Interwoven document management and a new SharePoint 2007 portal.

ContactNet mines e-mail message flow to identify relationships outside the enterprise. It calculates the strength of the relationships by measuring the frequency of such messages. Users can type in the name of an individual or a company, and ContactNet brings up a list of people within the firm who have connections to the target person or organization. In addition, ContactNet provides access to a large database of public and private companies. Through that database, users can find out the standard industry code, the standing of the target individual within the company, and other information critical to understanding the context of the connection.

The ability to set the parameters for analyzing e-mail patterns was a key factor in the selection of ContactNet. "The product is very flexible, with a wide spectrum of transparency," Baldwin explains. "Access to contact details can be as open or private as the organization decides."

In addition, the configuration can be managed so that only certain groups have their e-mail traffic analyzed. Baldwin is, however, quick to add that the greatest value is obtained when ContactNet is not overly limited. "We consider all e-mails sent from our firm to be in the corporate sphere, and want to be able to maximize the value from them," he says.

ContactNet fills an important gap that customer relationship management (CRM) products do not address, according to Baldwin. "CRM systems are great at managing top contacts, the highly visible ones, but they are time-consuming to maintain and not cost-effective for managing initial contacts," he says. "ContactNet supplements CRM; it does not manage prospects, but answers the question of "who knows whom."

Founded in 2002, Contact Networks is now owned by Thomson Reuters, and has undergone substantial growth in recent years.

"After one large law firm bought the software in 2004, we began to realize how important contacts were to the legal industry," says Geoffrey Hyatt, CEO of Contact Networks. "It’s now our fastest growing market."

The impact of ContactNet in the legal environment can be impressive, according to Hyatt. "In one case, a user at one of our customer firms heard about a company that had a problem with food contamination. Using ContactNet, he found someone in his firm who had a relationship, and by the end of the day, the company was a client," Hyatt says.

ContactNet has evolved over the years, and is now readily integrated with other applications such as Salesforce.com, Siebel (now Oracle), and InterAction through its API. In addition, a new user interface allows navigation through the network of contacts rather than simply presenting a list of results.

From business information to contact information

Hoover’s was established nearly 20 years ago as a source of business insight and analysis. Purchased by Dun & Bradstreet in 2003, Hoover’s subscription service provides coverage of more than 26 million companies and 34 million executives. In addition to offering background information about those companies, Hoover’s also prepares detailed analyses about selected firms.

In January, Hoover’s introduced Hoover’s Connect, an enterprise networking solution for business professionals that helps them establish relationships with targeted prospects. The Hoover’s Connect solution is based on technology from Visible Path, which Hoover’s acquired earlier this year.

When a user of Hoover’s business information service finds a company of interest, he or she can click on the Connect button to find out whether a path exists to the target company. "Hoover’s Connect lists the five best ways to reach that company," says David Mather, president of Hoover’s, "and automatically highlights the strongest path."

Hoover’s Connect can mine e-mail, calendars and journal entries, depending on what items the user chooses to make available. The strength of relationships to contacts is determined by algorithms that plug into Microsoft Outlook.

Hoover’s also hosts a public Web site that is similar to networking sites such as LinkedIn (linkedin.com), but is more specifically focused. It serves professionals, primarily in sales and strategic marketing, who want to make relevant connections that can shorten sales cycles and increase the level at which they are selling into an organization. Rather than providing a large network of possibly weak ties, Hoover’s Connect is geared toward finding relevant connections for users’ day-to-day business activities. Users of the enterprise version access members of this public Web site, in addition to internal contacts, when they conduct a search.

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