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Enterprise-friendly social software

The market for enterprise Web 2.0 capability continues to expand and evolve. Wainhouse Research predicts a growth from $220 million in 2007 to $2 billion in 2012. The terminology to describe it is changing along with the technology. IBM now uses the term "social software" to include a range of functions such as social networking, blogs and wikis (see sidebar below). Wainhouse’s definition of social networking includes not only Facebook-style user profiles, but also blogs, wikis and collaboration-enabling components of other products such as Microsoft’s Sharepoint.

Regardless of the descriptors, products with those functions are making steady inroads into the enterprise environment. A primary factor for success is having a clear understanding of the purpose of the implementation, not just deploying it as "nice to have."

Acumen Fund—a non-profit global venture fund that operates in India, Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania and Uganda—uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty. It focuses on companies whose customers earn less than $4 per day; its investees work in the healthcare, housing, energy and clean water sectors.

Acumen Fund’s guiding principle is that building viable businesses is a more effective long-term solution to poverty than charity, which can fill immediate needs but not offer sustainable improvement. Acumen uses philanthropic capital to make equity investments or loans and re-invests the profits in new initiatives.

Founded in 2001, Acumen has grown threefold since 2004. That growth prompted it to explore a way for its geographically dispersed staff to communicate and collaborate. Most of the interaction was taking place via e-mail, which was difficult to use for complex discussions or permanent documentation.

"Our chief investment officer, Brian Trelstad, has been frustrated with knowledge capture since he started in 2004," says Robert Katz, knowledge and communications associate at Acumen. "When I was brought on board this spring, he asked me to work out a solution." Trelstad, who previously worked with a knowledge management system at a large consulting firm, and Katz reviewed many options and together settled on Socialtext.

Socialtext provides a hosted service offering a wiki, blog, variety of widgets, and integration with e-mail and contact management products.

"Our staff is very busy, so we really need a collaboration system that does not disrupt our normal flow of activities," Katz explains. "To make it easy, we set up a button called ‘Instead of E-mail,’ which posts messages to a section of the wiki."

The message can include links to documents or to Web sites. Rather than sending out an e-mail to all staff, a single message is posted in a central location. "Each day, we see an update about what has changed, whether our CEO has made any announcements and so forth," Katz adds.

When Socialtext was launched in the New York City office, Katz organized a scavenger hunt on the Acumen Fund wiki to introduce staff to Socialtext. Participants were given 11 questions to answer from information that was already in the wiki. It was a fun way to launch the effort and, more importantly, it forced staff to log in and try it out for themselves.

"We asked questions such as, ‘What is the phone number of the India manager?’ and ‘What was the last article sent by our CEO?’ " Katz recounts. "The exercise helped show how effective the search function was and how Socialtext can search e-mail attachments, PowerPoint presentations and other files to find the answers."

In fact, the search function was very important in the selection process, according to Katz, as was the ability to integrate the wiki into Acumen Fund’s other activities and not make it a separate task. 

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