Social Networks Sweep the Landscape
How I Learned to Love Blogs and Wikis

We USED to have a joke around the office. Whenever one of us had a question we couldn’t immediately resolve, someone would inevitably pipe up, "Hey, let’s start a wiki." It was dripping with sarcasm. We are self-righteously skeptical of buzz terms, especially one as silly as that—"wiki..." I mean, come on!

We don’t joke about wikis much anymore. All the buzz about actual use cases and success stories surrounding new "Web 2.0"-type initiatives has taken the fun out of it.

I sat down to speak recently with a group of guys who don’t joke around about social networks either. I met with Mark Buckallew and Jason Hekl from InQuira; Daniel Kraft from Red Dot/Open Text; Eben Miller of Interwoven; Jerome Pesenti of Vivisimo and Lance Shaw from EMC.

"The people ‘at the top’ are finally realizing that the Web channel—either internal or external—is transformative for their businesses," said Eben Miller, director of product marketing for Web content management at Interwoven. "You see it in the media; you can’t go five seconds without hearing about it on TV, or seeing it in a newspaper article. Your kids are online chatting with friends... You’ve got to use those same technologies and strategies to manage your business... or you’re left in the dust."

Web strategies are also beginning to take on new shapes and forms within the company. User forums have migrated from the consumer websites right into your design team’s collaboration workspace. Blogs—once the domain of earnest political smarty-pants know-it-alls—are now feeding your sales force with vital information. Search tools based on "popularity" instead of keywords now help your contact center agents handle delicate customer solutions. It’s a whole ‘nother ball game.

"Today, most of the emphasis is on external-facing efforts, because there’s a clear ROI. The impact is on satisfying the consumer, and that sells," said Jason Hekl, VP corporate marketing at InQuira. "But the same technologies can apply to internal activity, too. Once this unique set of technologies is deployed and working in, say, a call center, customers realize that it’s not too different from what they’re doing in other areas within the business. It might be internal processes to manage escalation between different tiers of support... it might be a sales portal that helps sales reps collaborate to close business... we’ve even gotten requests for information on how to use this unique set of technologies in HR environments. So even though investment might be initially driven by the ‘externality’ of customer service, we’re on the verge of a new category of discreet knowledge applications all throughout the enterprise," predicted Jason.

"CEOs are really focused on it right now," added Mark Buckallew, senior director of product management at InQuira. "As the economy slows down, it’s a best bet for investment because you can actually measure it. There’s been a shift; now, instead of spending marketing investments on a billboard or a radio/TV ad—which you can’t measure as effectively—you can go online and target customers based on demographics."

Accepting the New
"These are not brand-new ‘welcome-to-2008’ ideas," reminded Lance Shaw, senior product marketing manager, for EMC. "Some of these ideas have been kicking around in the knowledge management realm for decades. But organizations are now ready for them; the effect of consumerism on employees has driven it into the enterprise."

As an example, Lance referred to some of the better known consumer networks that have come down this pike before. "Facebook has gone through the learning curve, and has figured out the squeaks and bumps. We can take those ideas and bring them into the enterprise. Facebook might have ridiculous applications like ‘My zombie can kill your zombie.’ That’s not what the enterprise platform is for. It is for ‘What are your areas of expertise?’ ‘How can I reach you?’ Lance said.

"Eventually if it’s worthwhile—and I think it’s now proven itself to be worthwhile—it becomes dial tone, it becomes a part of your infrastructure," continued Lance. "It’s not a separate tool; it gets wrapped into your information management platform. But instead of just trying to find a Word file or a graphic, you also discover who wrote it and what expertise they bring. The goal is the same as it’s been with other collaborative tools—to minimize duplication, minimize discovery time and searching."

This notion that social networking concepts are just as comfortable in the back-office as in front of your customers’ eyeballs was a common theme among our panel. "There is a social workplace and there is a social marketplace," said Daniel Kraft, senior vice president, Open Text. "A lot of vendors are focused on the social workplace, which is knowledge sharing, finding the expert, putting ideas up for debate and trying to have more people participate in the finding of innovation, of opinion, of direction," explained Dan. In other words, knowledge management. "On the other hand," he continued, "the social marketplace is where the people who don’t trust your marketing people want to hear it from the real customers. In many cases the boundary between internal and external is blurring," he said.

"With the enterprise you get a more implicit network than explicit one," added Jerome Pesenti, chief scientist for Vivisimo. "You can see the people who tag the same documents, you can see the people who use the same tags, you can see the people who work on the same topics, and you create some identity correlations that are beyond tthe simple, ‘I decide who my friends are.’ That’s more typical of the consumer network sites and is less applicable in the enterprise," Jerome said.

"That’s right," agreed Mark Buckallew. "There are communities occurring inside and outside your organization. There’s nothing you can do to stop that. What we’re trying to do is help companies figure out how to access ALL that information as part of their findability efforts. You need to be able to view content that is in a forum outside of your control, and decide: is that something I don’t want to sanction, or is it something I want to bring in and use as part of my system?"

And making that decision of "trust vs. don’t trust" is becoming the key skill for today’s overly networked knowledge worker. "There’s lots of evidence that the ‘brand champions’ who participate in communities have an outsized influence over what goes on. I don’t know what else these people do all day, they’re out there so much!" pointed out Jason Hekl. "But there is a strong psychological component; these influential community members take personal satisfaction in being at the top," said Jason.

In the parlance, this leads to a "reputational model." The best (and cheapest) way to approach content such as a chatter on a consumer forum is to, as Jason puts it, "leave it where it lies," and wait for the community to determine whether the source is reliable by allowing an organic "wisdom of the crowd" dynamic to take place. If the content from a particular source is good today, chances are greater that the person’s next comments will be good, too. "That’s a line that’s tough for some companies to cross," Jason admits.

"A long time ago it made sense to hold knowledge close to the vest, as job security. But now the technology has created a sort of ‘knowledge market.’ Those people who are best at their job and solve more complex problems build up points and increase their reputations," Jason said. They don’t call them "social" networks for nothing; in this age, where you stand in society can hinge on your ability to make a name for yourself.

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