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Microblogging eases into the enterprise

Social networking has moved into the enterprise market in a big way over the past year, with blogs and wikis becoming ubiquitous, and more recently, a trend toward enterprise microblogging. According to IDC, the market doubled between 2007 and 2008, although on a small base, and is expected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2013.

Gartner points to a crowded field comprised of an array of niche players rather than any clear leaders. Now that enterprise applications for social networking are widely available, security concerns are being addressed, and organizations can make use of the content and metadata associated with social networking exchanges.

The California Endowment is a private, non-profit foundation that evolved from WellPoint Health Networks, a for-profit organization created by Blue Cross of California. In September 2009, California Endowment launched CalConnect, a social networking site designed to support its 10-year strategic plan for building healthy and safe communities.

The plan supports initiatives for healthcare delivery, promotion of healthy life styles and economic development. It focuses on 14 geographical locations that include both rural and urban environments.

"We wanted to increase our ability to interact with grantees, as well as provide them with opportunities to interact with each other," says Julio Zaldivar, digital media and usability consultant at California Endowment. In addition, by offering online collaboration, the foundation was able to cut back substantially on travel costs.

From the user’s viewpoint

Since California Endowment was already using CMS400.NET from Ektron as its Web content management (WCM) system, the functionality for social networking was in place. "We were very happy with CMS400.NET," says Zaldivar, "and wanted a social networking application that would integrate with our existing enterprise infrastructure."

Two versions of the social networking site were developed: first, one for internal use that served as a pilot, and then one for the public-facing site. Initially, lessons learned from the internal (intranet) version were applied to the development of the public site. Over time, improvements suggested by outside users were also incorporated into the internal version.

Ektron helped California Endowment set up templates to feed content from the WCM into a browser interface so that the information was filtered.

"Previously, sorting through our long list of grantees could be frustrating," Zaldivar says, "but now we are able to push the content out more easily." California Endowment is also changing its process for reviewing and approving grants. "We are about to lock down these processes into a more streamlined approach," he adds.

Interface design for both internal and external users was a high priority for the site. "When an organization designs an application, it is very important to make the user’s viewpoint the first priority, and not get stuck on the designer’s idea of esthetics," Zaldivar advises. "You really need to get inside the user’s head and predict what they are going to want to do."

Embracing change

As a result of his analysis, Zaldivar settled on a screen that has just three buttons that the user sees after creating an account: One creates an announcement, one creates a group and one creates an event.

"Not everyone who accesses the site is a power user," Zaldivar says, "and in some cases, their language skills are limited. We wanted to be sure the site would work for a wide range of users."

CalConnect has had activity from users in locations throughout the state. Grantees have posted documents, photos, videos and calendaring events. "The willingness of our target audiences to embrace this new method of communication has been gratifying," Zaldivar says. The site is considered a work in progress, and California Endowment will continue to monitor and adapt design suggestions as they arrive and as the online communities grow.

Rapid interactivity

The next step for California Endowment will be to incorporate microblogging into its social networking site. "We called our existing blogging section ‘Blogs and Blurbs’ to emphasize that posts could be short," Zaldivar says, "but the addition of microblogging will make this even easier and more real-time."

The microblogging function will provide the rapid interactivity of a Twitter-like application, but will do so in the context of an enterprise application. Therefore, the content can be stored, retrieved and analyzed to provide insights into corporate performance and needs.

Like other social media applications, microblogging first saw use in the consumer environment but is producing real value in the business environment. "When a customer asks a difficult question and tech support needs a quick answer, microblogging is ideal, " says Bill Rogers, CEO and founder of Ektron. It pushes the question out, and someone will likely be able to answer it.

CMS400.NET provides many paths to access the micro-messages. "You don’t need to subscribe to a group in order to get alerts," Rogers adds. "I may not want to get all the messages from a group, but I can still find out when a blog has been added to, by getting a micro-message. I can also pick out any key word and get all the micro-messages that contain it, or get all messages from particular individuals."

Within Ektron CMS400.NET, the addition or editing of any document triggers a micro-message that is added into the site’s activity stream, through which any site user can find a direct link to navigate to the document to make additional edits. All those changes are tracked natively by the document management system, preserving document history and enforcing workflow.

First foray

Although some organizations expand into microblogging after launching tools such as blogs and wikis, others are using it as their first foray into social networking. National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate St. Louis Public Radio, which broadcasts from studios at the University of Missouri - St. Louis, took that approach. "We chose Socialtext for a number of reasons, including its Signals microblogging application," says Robert Altman, Web/production assistant.

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