Jinfo BlogSocial Tools for Business Use: Messages from a Web 2.0 Conference

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By Alexia Miller

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In the past few months, it's been hard to ignore the phenomenon of Facebook. This online social networking tool has even caught the attention of traditional media, with many of the broadsheets carrying articles from evangelical journalists who've succumbed to the frenzy. As someone who spends most of her working life at a keyboard I've always resisted anything that keeps me at my laptop outside work hours, but I too found myself signing up to Facebook a couple of months ago. Yet I still couldn't quite get the point of it. Did I really need to know that my friend in Canada was staring out of the window two hours ago? Attending the Social Tools for Business Use: Web 2.0 to Enterprise 2.0 New Development & Evolution conference in mid July has given me a great deal of insight into exactly why people are flocking to Facebook and other Web 2.0 tools.

The conference's aim was to examine how businesses could use social tools 'to improve creativity, productivity, collaboration and visibility within an enterprise, as well as engaging clients and partners in more fruitful collaboration.' Over two days, 14 speakers discussed a huge range of tools and sites, including wikis, blogs, mash-ups, social tagging, instant messaging, video, social bookmarking, podcasts and services like Facebook, Twitter, NetVibes and Flock.

The first two sessions, Social Tools in the Enterprise and The Beauty of Web 2.0, were key to understanding the concept of the networked individual and how this impacts everything from the way we gather information to our preferred communication channels. A number of the conference presentations looked at the impact that video can make in communications: by adding body language and images into a recorded communication, the message becomes much more believable and engaging.

Charities 2.0 examined how social tools can help charities, which are facing huge challenges with awareness and fundraising. When individuals are far more likely to identify with a cause than a particular charity, how can organisations emotionally engage their supporters? Social tools can help donors and beneficiaries connect one-to-one.

It was great to see a case study from Chartered Institute of Library Information Professionals (CILIP) on their recent introduction of communities for its members, and to learn how BTs R&D group was using wikis to build an intranet. From IBM and elastictime there were practical examples of how geographically dispersed organisations could improve networking, knowledge sharing and collaboration. Finally, presentations from the Guardian and BBC Five Live looked at how social tools are increasingly important to reporting. These tools are changing the way the media reports, impacting editorial style and creating two-way content for well-established channels.

Putting social tools to work

The themes that emerged from the conference were perhaps not new, but the high number of social tools advocates in attendance indicated an enthusiastic outlook.

  • Organisations cannot afford to ignore social tools. If they don't consider how they can use these tools, chances are they've already lost opportunities to faster-moving competitors and may even be hampering their workforce. For example: a charity should seriously consider a presence on Facebook in order to build a network of individual supporters; a membership organisation can actively engage its members if it provides a forum to discuss issues; a business can help its staff save time searching if it encourages them to bookmark useful sites and share these. One key point: participation drives traffic. Wikipedia is far more popular than Encarta, and Flikr is used more than Kodak Gallery. If you want people to use a tool, letting them contribute to it will engage their interest.

  • There's a tension between the audience participation model of Web 2.0 and business' need for confidentiality and verification. If an employee is blogging, what are they saying - even by inference - about the firm? In a world where wikis or social bookmarks and tags are popular research tools, who is ultimately responsible for the accuracy of information? If you create an online community, how will you moderate what should be an open and free forum? If you let your employees access Facebook at work, how can you be sure that they will remain alert to whether it's a work or social conversation they're having? Those speakers and participants who had taken the risk of opening up their organisation to social tools were much more positive than might have been expected. Their advice? Treat your networked individuals as intelligent adults and relax your need to be in control. Light, open and honest support is more constructive than a dictatorship. Do, however, stay involved - don't assume that the community can thrive without some time and attention.

  • For individuals, the benefits of using social tools often feel obvious even if it is an instinctual gain, difficult to articulate and impossible to measure. For most organisations, however, there's a need to demonstrate return on investment. Those responsible for proving value have a dilemma: on the one hand, hard targets such as page hits or number of posts are easier to collect but have relatively little meaning. On the other hand, measurements such as the ability of an organisation to innovate are hard to measure or directly attribute but are of fundamental importance to its health.

  • The exponential growth of the Internet means that the idea of personal referral is more important than ever. Individuals gather content gems, tag and share them with their networks via blogs or social bookmarks and rely on their network to share in return. In a virtuous circle, the information that is judged the most relevant gets the most attention is used to inform others. Sites such as del.icio.us continue to grow, and businesses are beginning to explore concepts such as social bookmarks. Some heavily networked individuals trust their network to a high degree, feeling that if there is information that they need to know their community will flag it up.

The idea that social tools are of no interest to anyone over a certain age is questionable. Provided that you have basic Internet literacy, the barrier is perhaps not age but participation. The more frequently and intensively you use these new tools the more obvious the rewards become. The problem is that we're often hampered by lack of time and the fact that we already have well-established social tools like mobile phones and e-mail that work well for us. But to simply dismiss the new tools is to ignore the unique benefits that some of them can offer.

It seems likely that business will find a role for social tools, but how will this impact staff training needs? Will we need to be taught the social rules of web interaction in the same way that we've learnt mobile phone text abbreviations? Blogging, user group moderation, video presentation: all these communication channels require a new skill set.

Leveraging 'light' social contact for business

So back to my original question about Facebook - what is the point? There are many ways to keep in touch with the people you know - by phone, via instant messenger, chatting by the water cooler or even heading down to the pub. Each channel has its benefits and its drawbacks, but tools such as Facebook or Twitter allow what speaker Suw Charman defined as 'light social contact' or 'ambient intimacy'. You're kept up to date with what's going on in that person's life without having to contact them in any active way, and Facebook or Twitter bring all your contacts together in one place in real time. The benefits of such social tools for business? This ongoing light social contact with a colleague or client can mean that face to face meetings start with a deeper personal trust and understanding.

Have I been back to Facebook? Yes - and I'll keep going back. I may find that it's not my preferred social network tool in the long run, but as I add more applications and find new contacts on there, it's becoming a lot more interesting place to be.


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