Why Social Networks for Business?

Social Networks were initially adopted for peer to peer communication and collaboration. With the advent of Enterprise 2.0, businesses jumped in the bandwagon. Employees using social networks for personal exchange saw benefits to use them for their businesses. It changed the way businesses were communicating institutionally with citizens to community communications.
Individuals used online communities for forums, newsgroups and RSS. They moved onto the blogosphere with blogs and connected communities. Personal social networks (Facebook, myspace …) started and they were followed by enterprise social networks and speciality social sites (YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, BrightTalk …).

Enterprises initially used social networks for marketing opportunities with clients and communication with personnel. When business (enterprise or organization) social network arrived, businesses started developing networks for emergency/crisis management and business continuity alternatives.  
Marketing opportunities

Enterprises discovered new capabilities to use social networks as a marketing tool since marketing professional were initial users of personal social networks to extend their reach to and influence their clients and prospects as citizens. Communications went from institutional (or top down) approach to theme or community of clients approach. This networking was used to inform clients about new product introduction. Business obtained immediate results from pilots of new products through refined communication with a focus on interested clients or prospects that enlisted as «fans». Marketing personnel use blogs to promote their brand and follow its impacts on clients. They can adjust their speech accordingly.

Communications with personnel

Enterprises wanted to improve their communications with their employees and focus on specific groups and interested employees (fans). They looked for improvements of staff retention and wanted to increase their exposure and visibility therefore their reputation. Human resource departments try to locate the right expertise internally to get the job done. Enterprise target was the development of web traffic and audience penetration. Business recruiters use the social networks to have access to more information on future employees and recruiting prospects that are aligned to the firm’s culture and requirements. They communicate with groups of prospects based on the expressed interests and use social networks to rebuild relationships on location, functional and technical basis. Another objective was to increase knowledge sharing between employees. Other opportunities for businesses lie in the promotion of corporate charity, virtual meetings with corporate video, wikis and employee blogs. Enterprises target to increase innovation with encounters and conversations to deliver new ideas and new business opportunities.

Business Social Network specific requirements
Social network for businesses require additional tools to build them to ensure scalability, security and privacy, message archival and audit capabilities, measurability and controllability, push/pull actions, mentoring and training support.

Social Network Architecture
Business Social Network need to incorporate specific architecture characteristics like the capacity to scale on demand for business needs. But the primary requirement is to provide multichannel capabilities for businesses. This capability would enable exchanges between enterprise personnel for a variety of requirements. Channels may be offered on an operational basis to cover employees of a specific department or service, for a location and by type of employees to include for example requirements for sensitive information (executives and regulatory requirements for example). Security, authentication and privacy must be ensured in order to guaranty information security and offer privacy to individuals and groups that need protection to sensitive information exchange. Archival of the information transiting on social networks is needed to reduce noise and focus on the appropriate information. Message archival is a necessity to permit segmentation of specific information and their transfer to alternate storage areas. Custodian and audit of messages is required to conduct management actions and conform to regulatory requirements. Rules are specific to business requirements and their regulations. Social network architecture for businesses require additional extensions for plug-in like email, GPS locator, maps and notifications as «pubsubhubhub» initiatives. Other initiatives could be interesting for special needs community: they are text to voice, voice to text … Business Social Networks need interoperability to enable one stop shop between the business channels and existing extensions such as personal social Networks (Facebook, myspace, Twitter, LinkedIn …), RSS, blogs and even secured Intranet.

Social Network Management
In order to implement social networks, organization management needs to incorporate policies, strategy, measurability and controllability as part of their analysis of social network operations and the returns they obtain on their investments. Businesses require push/pull actions as opposed to push only actions for peer to peer social networks. Push actions is more traditional in an institutional format sending information (down) to employees. Business social networks brought about bidirectional exchanges and focus on pull actions needed for resource feedback after a loss of resources such as pandemic H1N1. It is important for businesses to obtain confirmation from employees staying at home that they will report their unavailability for work: it is of particular importance for loss of key personnel. Organizations need training capabilities specific for social network for all employees to ensure its rapid and full implementation.

Business Continuity – Emergency and crisis management
Social Networks can leverage emergency management (EM), business continuity (BCP), information and communication continuity (DRP) and continuity of operations (COOP) for businesses. Using social networks will help businesses face the following continuity scenarios: loss of human resources (for example pandemic H1N1 when staff works at home), short term natural disasters like ice storms or tornado, and contingency for unforeseen disruptions or event driven situations like strikes, ERP change or merge/acquisitions.

Business Continuity requires that business social network support multichannel operations for continuity of operations. Crisis management on its own requires channels for executives, crisis management team, crisis communication team and damage assessment team. For emergency management, channels are needed for vital emergency operation team, business unit teams, concerned employees, external emergency agencies, suppliers and partners and media. Chief advantage of using multichannel for business social networks is that many team leaders participate in various groups and require bidirectional exchange in addition to informative exchange to complete their tasks. For loss of resources like H1N1, channels are needed for employees to report their unavailability for work to management.

Mentoring (coaching) and Subject Matter Expertise (SME)
Business Continuity is a perfect candidate to implement monitoring (or coaching) and SME. It offers the possibility to have access to top notch remote experts easily to handle unforeseen disruption and obtain immediate response or provide assistance for driving exercises at distance. It even leads to using these experts in an outsourcing role as it becomes difficult to identify internal resources for this type of requirement. It also helps the business to concentrate on its core competency products and key clients as opposed to using part of operational resources with its effect on business continuity. This approach may be used in high expertise areas such as Information and Communication Technology (ICT) departments and for Governance, Risk Management and Compliance (GRC) support at the corporate level and for board of directors.
Expertise in Social Networks
In order to gain expertise with social networks, professionals have to register with a maximum number of networks (like in excess 40) to ensure that they touch all bases. Networks of all sizes offer a variety of capability, specificity (community, blog, RSS and video …), scalability, coverage and interoperability. But business have to keep in mind that social network are different from the personal social networks. Social networks like Balaya and similar specialised networks are worth looking at since these hybrid social networking sites include secure messaging for businesses.

Business social networks present new opportunities for communication to clients and employees. Before embarking on social networks, management needs to evaluate the steps for building a strategy to achieve this target. Management should identify an owner (executive) for this new function in the business and ensure that expected returns are obtained. Policies and a framework are necessary to launch this initiative.

Georges Cowan

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