New social networking apps empower information workers on the go

As companies contemplate how to use social networking to drive business benefit, technology vendors are weaving Web 2.0 features into the products — taking a cue from consumer-driven social networks such as Facebook.

Two announcements at the CTIA Wireless 2008 conference in Las Vegas this week indicate how Canadian communication hardware, software and services vendors are including popular social networking capabilities in their offerings.

Toronto-based NewStep Networks Inc., a telecommunications software provider, announced some Web 2.0 additions to their product on Tuesday.

A new Facebook application allows workers to import their enterprise contact list, and offers a click-to-call feature.

Widgets featuring a similar contact list and click-to-call were also unveiled for two Web portals, iGoogle and Yahoo’s upcoming oneConnect.

oneConnect – Yahoo’s follow-up to its oneSearch mobile application –  aggregates e-mail, instant messages, text, and social networks on to one list.

Though some companies have workplace policies barring the use of Web 2.0 applications, enterprises are realizing the potential business benefits of social networks, says Shannon Bell, vice-president of marketing at NewStep.

“It’s one of those love-hate relationships enterprises have with social networking,” Bell says.

She says, social networks that aggregate a range of capabilities in some ways operate like unified communications technologies.

“We believe, in the long term, the lines will become blurred.”

Meanwhile, Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion (RIM) recorded more than one million downloads of the Facebook application for its Blackberry device, the company announced April 1.

That’s significant given the product’s traditionally business-oriented market.  

RIM also plans to integrate with Lotus Connections – IBM’s social networking utility designed for business, says Mark Guibert, the company’s vice- president of corporate marketing.

“We’re seeing strong interest in social networking applications on both business and consumer fronts,” he says in an e-mail. “It’s a natural and complementary extension to the more traditional mobile communications applications.”

Still, enterprise isn’t fully embracing social networking yet.

Adoption levels are very low at this point and companies are merely experimenting with mainstream social sites, explains Hickernell.

 Businesses, he said, “are sitting back and monitoring the experiment”, waiting until enterprise-grade social networking products become available.

In addition to IBM, companies such as Sparta Social Networks, Prospero, and SelectMinds are all developing social networking products targeted at larger businesses.

“They have to wait for social networking to be blessed by the enterprise and then corporate social networks will be adopted,” says Tim Hickernell, an analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group.

“They’re using the word social, but it’s really more like professional networking if you think about it.”

Eventually the social networking trend could cause a shift in how people are contacted, NewStep’s Bell says.
Her company assigns a virtual number to each user, and the software chooses the best way to contact the user when their number is called – whether on a land line, cell phone or a laptop.

“Social networking sites identify you as a person, not a number, and you don’t have to bother with contact information,” Bell says. “We are a [long] way from this being really prevalent in communications, but you can see a move in that direction.”

For now, the best enterprise use of these Web 2.0 tools isn’t for employee-to-employee communications, but for customer-facing windows, according to Info-Tech’s Hickernell.

He uses an example of an investment brokerage to illustrate this.

“Think of how important it is for the brokerage itself to be able to tie-in all the modern communications that their prospects and customers use,” he says.  It could take advantage of a network of friends for referrals and testimonials on investment strategy.

The human resources department could also track potential recruits with the tools.

It is a convenient way to track promising students until they graduate, and then bring them into the company, Hickernell adds.

Whether your firm should take the plunge into social networking or not depends on the perceived business benefits of such an initiative, he adds.

“It’s back to the same old question of balancing life and work,” the analyst says. “We’re balancing the value of social networking against the pitfalls of personal use.”

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