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Social networking: KM and beyond

The range of software products encompassed by social networking is so extensive and diverse that sorting out the options can be difficult. The mix includes standalone blog/wiki products, contact management and networking solutions, Web 2.0 extensions to traditional KM offerings such as search and Web content management (WCM), and more general networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook.

Organizations should carefully consider why they are adding social networking capability, because the specific goals should drive the selection of solutions. Some key reasons an organization might want to add social networking functionality are to:

  • Use information more effectively to improve productivity and profit. An example is the addition of "social search" to search tools. Vivisimo’s Velocity 6.0 allows users to vote on the value of the documents they find, add tags and write annotations. Rather than needing to start from scratch to sift through documents, users can benefit from the comments of other searchers to save time and improve search results.
  • Acquire customer feedback to aid in product development and marketing. One of the major reasons that organizations set up forums and blogs is to tap into customer ideas and opinions. IdeaStorm is a branded site developed by Dell (dell.com) to solicit comments from its customers. One new product that has been directly attributed to customer input in that online community is the availability of the Linux operating system on Dell computers.
  • Support a community of practice to gain insight into user needs and establish professional relationships. iRise, a company that offers a rapid simulation tool for software development, is supporting an online community called Catalyze. Tom Humbarger, senior manager of strategic projects at iRise and manager of the Catalyze community, explains, "Our goals in developing this site were to learn from the community about their ongoing needs and, conversely, to provide them with information to problem-solve."

Benefits of community

Catalyze was established in 2007 for professionals who are involved in defining and designing Web sites and software applications. The site offers forums, blogs, resources, events and opportunities to network with others. Participants in the community include both business analysts who are defining requirements from the business side, and user experience (UX) professionals who focus on usability, design and human factors issues. The community now has more than 3,400 members.

The community platform and site is hosted by Mzinga, which introduced its social networking platform in 2001. "We did an extensive search," Humbarger says, "and found that Mzinga had a B2B product well suited to our needs." Humbarger also considered the company to be knowledgeable about best practices in social networking and wanted the hosted service it offered. In addition, Mzinga helps to co-moderate the site.

The design field has taken off as Web-based applications have become ubiquitous and increasingly complex. Community members seek answers to their technical questions through forums in design, methods, usability and testing, and monthly webinars provide insights into topical areas in the profession. Questions that come up may be specific to development, such as products that work for usability testing, or how to interview someone for a business analyst job in software design.

The blogs on Catalyze also address a wide range of topics, including general questions such as how to present the profession of interaction design to the outside world. Usability professionals come from a diverse set of backgrounds—cognitive psychologists, computer scientists and design professionals with business backgrounds. Therefore, HR recruiters and online job listings may be unclear on how to classify such individuals. Catalyze provides an environment in which its members can address that type of professional concern.

One of the ways in which iRise supports the site is by producing monthly webinars, which can promote discussion and add fresh content to the community. Recently, a webcast entitled "The Five Myths of Rich Internet Applications" was presented by OneSpring, a company that specializes in UX design and uses iRise as one of its development tools.

Given the significant hours required to sustain the Catalyze site, what is iRise gaining? "Measuring the ROI of a community is difficult," Humbarger says, "but the intangibles are important." Creating a network of professionals who are not necessarily users of the sponsor’s product is a good way to expand access to potential customers. Also, within the Catalyze online community is a sub-community of iRise users that can be accessed only by its own members.

"Over time," Humbarger adds, "we hope this group evolves into a self-sustaining peer support group in which members can help each other with questions and responses about iRise."

Social networking has a remarkable ability to involve individuals, often in ways that are unpredictable. "One financial services company wanted a site where people could talk about their retirement goals," says Aaron Strout, VP of new media at Mzinga. "People said things they would not likely say directly to their rep about their goals and dreams."

A lot of qualitative information emerges, but also, because comments are documented, quantitative information can be obtained about the most common topics—information that would otherwise be very hard to aggregate. In addition, organizations can tap into reservoirs of knowledge that were previously tacit, and make them broadly accessible.

Extending KM

Vendors of KM products are getting the message that users want social networking and are responding accordingly. Social networking capability is being added to KM products by a wide range of companies, including those that offer just a single product such as a Web content management (WCM) system, as well as by large vendors like IBM and Microsoft. Vendors are also seeking partnerships to provide best-of-breed social networking; Microsoft, for example, has a large financial stake in Facebook.

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