Social networking is intrinsic to the way we communicate now, and it's not all about Facebook and Twitter. Many small businesses create their own internal social networks and consider them valuable spaces for communication and sharing.
"People are used to using tools and solutions that let them interact in certain ways with their family and friends, using Twitter and Facebook and mobile phones, and that’s what they expect when they show up to work the next morning," says Nikhil Govindaraj, vice president of products at Moxie Software, a software company that offers cloud-based enterprise social networks. "You expect the same sort of intuitive, familiar experience.”
Enterprise social networks offer many of the same features that you'll find in traditional social networks—like user profiles, activity feeds, forums and event planning tools—but they're specific to company needs. Here are a few of the ways these tools can help your business collaborate.
Get to know each other
The profile function on most internal social networks allows employees to post information, pictures and details about themselves that they might not otherwise have a mechanism to share. This relatively informal self-disclosure offers a professional way for employees to get to know each other beyond the workplace. Getting to know fellow employees is a vital part of the culture and productivity of any business, and because it's in social network form, this awareness is easy to foster.
“It’s so open and social," says Belinda Wong, communications manager for social networking company Yammer. "You have an ambient awareness of everything that’s going on in the company."
Social networks allow for communication that goes beyond e-mail. With e-mail, you have to know who can answer a question or respond to a problem. With a social network, however, you can put that question or problem out there for everyone to see; such crowdsourcing often provides valuable results.
“Going through old channels just doesn’t always make sense," says Maria Ogneva, head of community with Yammer, which offers multiple channels of communication in its social networking platform, including feeds, groups and wiki-like forums. "The core of the Yammer network is the main feed. You don’t always know who to e-mail, but social networking allows you to locate expertise at the click of a mouse."
One function of an internal social network is to serve as a kind of electronic "comment box," where employees can vent, offer suggestions and give ideas that they might not have any other way of sharing. This function is also similar to what goes on around the water cooler—just the plain, old fashioned discussion, gossip and plan-making that make work fun and enjoyable. There's a kind of freedom in social networking, however, that goes beyond even what is possible in the real, nondigital world. People might feel comfortable sharing ideas and thoughts that they wouldn't normally express in a traditional setting.
Social networking company Spigit, in particular, focuses on providing a suggestion-box functionality in its network.
“No matter what type of company it is, everybody has excellent ideas for change," says Spigit's chief strategy officer, James Gardner. "But suggestion boxes never work. We add this social network with the goal of getting ideas out of employees.”
Make things fun
How do you get employees to want to offer up their suggestions and ideas, however? Spigit does it by making the process fun.
Gamification has infused the business world, and internal social networks are no exception. Businesses have discovered that contests and games make networking appealing and engaging.
"We’ve built social games into our tools, to help make innovation fun," says Gardner. Spigit offers an innovative gaming dimension in its social network. Gardner explains that Spigit's networks provide the option of earning virtual currency for good ideas aimed at improving the company, as well as a "stock market" where those ideas are valued.
“It’s very engaging," says Gardner. "Lots of people log in in the middle of the night because they want to check their stock.”
Internal social networks also give employees a chance to collaborate on projects on the road, across departments and between offices. Wiki-like spaces, forums or other models let employees work together and share their thoughts, plans, criticisms and concerns. Social networks provide a forum for being creative, and they allow sparks to fly and projects to blossom.
The digital collaboration can spread into the "real" world, too, with employees discussing projects they've been working on together in the digital social networking space. Because of the openness of a social network, employees who might not be formally involved in a project can also jump in and contribute. Social networking gives people a chance to see what others are doing and figure out how they might be able to contribute.
Canadian bookstore chain Indigo Books & Music, for instance, used its Moxie Software social networking platform to let bookstores share with each other pictures and videos of their displays of the recently-released Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. The stores, by seeing what others were doing, could get ideas, solve problems and tweak their own displays.
"They probably could have done a focus group, but with this they had 100 percent participation," says Tara Sporrer, vice president of marketing with Moxie Software. "And the reason they had that is that it was easy. It drew in participation. It was a purposeful collaboration.”
Coordinate events, promotions and activities
These networks can also be used to coordinate office events, parties and other activities. Employees and managers can create events, invite participants and track attendance using functions familiar from larger social networks like Facebook and Evite. Employees are already used to responding to such event requests outside of the office, so it feels natural in an internal site, as well.
The fact is, social networks just make sense. They're how we communicate now, and the more a business can tap into the zeitgeist, the more it will tap into all the benefits of being social.
For more tips on how to help build and optimize your business connections, access our exclusive video series with MSNBC: Networking: Making Connections to Build a Better Business.
Vivian Wagner is a freelance writer in New Concord, Ohio. She blogs via Contently.com.