At cute corporates it’s good to talk

Four years ago, when IWR interviewed social computing expert Euan Semple
about return on investment, he said: “If you keep the Investment low then people
don’t worry too much about the Return On.”

It’s a slick thought and one that has sustained many an experimental social
networking project. But, as the years roll by, organisations are finding that
while the investment may still be very low on the software and server resources,
it is more than made up for by the human effort that goes into getting these
projects off the ground.

IBM is cute. It makes its own software and runs the odd computer already, so
its software costs are already low and and its hardware and networking costs are
probably buried in general operational expenses. But it has something like six
hundred people acting as evangelists for this new(ish) way of co-operating and

Fortunately, IBM doesn’t pay them a bean. Not directly, anyway. Their rewards
come from helping others and enhancing their reputations. They are all
volunteers, doing this stuff outside their day jobs. They are led by a small
group of half a dozen people who are paid to do the work. Together, they are
spreading the word, helping insiders to get to grips with, and learning to love,
instant messaging, profile pages, blogging, wikis and all the rest of it.

Apart from learning about this stuff so it can sell it, what does IBM get out
of it? An extended chat with Luis Suarez, one of the co-leads of the community,
produced a bunch of reasons why an organisation might want to introduce social

First though, it has to be one that welcomes a degree of openness (not
everything can be shared) and trusts its staff. Communication can be fast and
direct, silos get breached and pointless intermediaries get sidelined.

Let’s quickly run through the key elements of social networking as they
relate to you. You can publish (some of) your work, promote yourself, find
others of value, make connections, collaborate, recommend others or their
published work and communicate. A social network emerges with strong and weak
links according to the degree of mutual interest.

It has benefits:

  • it accelerates discovery of people, places, information and networks

  • without disrupting others, it’s possible to validate sources through their
    published work, the communities they belong to, inbound links, recommendations
    and so on

  • communication is accelerated because it’s direct, unfiltered and unmediated

  • your reputation is enhanced through your profile and the metadata that
    surrounds it. An organisation’s reputation can be enhanced through
    responsiveness to suppliers, customers and prospects

  • staff effectiveness and loyalty are improved through belonging and being
    able to find out who’s who and what’s what
  • products and processes can be improved quickly – externally through customer
    feedback and internally through the rapid spread and magnetic attraction of good

  • it helps to preserve and exploit information; capture and surface knowledge
    quickly; get newcomers up to speed rapidly.

Of course, that was the quickest possible run-through. But it is clear that
each of these benefits, or an adaptation of them, could form the basis of a
business case for introducing social networking within the organisation.

Some organisations are happy to cast their net wider and absorb certain
suppliers and maybe even customers. Obviously none of these things should be
done casually – although the fundamental ideas seem simple, the implications are
quite profound.

But once this particular genie is out of the bottle, there’s no stuffing it

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