Social networking services for enterprise use (2)

In a previous post, I listed some interesting articles I found about the application of social networks to business scenarios. This was based on research I did for a presentation on “Social Networking and Collaboration Tools for Enterprise 2.0” in October. Referencing these articles, I also prepared some answers for questions at the event, which I am sharing below.

How important do you feel it is for a company to be represented on social networking sites (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.)?

It depends on the company, and if you need to be represented or not. Social networks can help you to investigate and know about your target audiences, and to participate in / contribute to conversations about your specific product or service (e.g., the “commercial interaction” forums on boards.ie).

“Companies must decide whether to take the build-it-yourself approach or simply hitch on to social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. Private networks offer greater control and protection, while the Web approach makes it possible to reach more people.” (TMCnet)

Should financial services firms be looking to build their own communities (for example, from an existing customer base), to syndicate services to existing community sites (using Facebook et al.) or to try and build sub-communities on existing sites?

If a company’s customers are already using site X, then leverage it; else do it from new. It is difficult to build a community from scratch (i.e., to gain critical mass), unless there is a very strong attractor to the site. Building a sub-community on an existing site being used by a company’s customers (whether it belongs to the company or is external to the company) would be a good idea if there is high usage.

Do you feel that social networking applications are going to move into niche areas (age group, business, interest related), or will the largest prevail?

Niche SNSs already exist, and if the niche site is more relevant and kept updated for users, it will survive. Niche SNSs have been set up for age demographics (Multiply), home countries (Silicon India), gender (CafeMom), occupations (TheFeng.org), interests (StreetCred), etc.

If you have a clearly defined and unserved / underserved target market, there could be a place for a niche SNS to connect and serve your audience. But if your users are already using a large SNS, then a niche can be housed therein.

From an enterprise usage point of view, should companies allow their employees to access and encourage the active use of existing social networks, or should they build their own internal social network?

It should be based on the company’s focus and size. If you are a major enterprise, there are great opportunities for private corporate networks as a critical mass can be gained more easily. For example, Starcom MediaVest Group has a 33% usage of their internal SNS.

As regards encouraging employees to use external networks, if the worries about time wasting can be overcome, companies can benefit enormously from employees using social networks and social media sites externally.

Firstly, in terms of promoting products / companies / services, you can reach many more users that you could otherwise, and get valuable feedback as mentioned previously.

For the employees themselves, the informal learning aspect is very important. Figures estimate that 75-80% of learning is done informally, and with 40-50% of employees accessing information and knowledge from social media sites, Web 2.0 is potentially responsible for a large proportion of this informal learning (up to 30-40%).

One of the biggest barriers I see to some of the social networking and collaboration sites is trust. How do ‘believers’ convince others that these are useful tools?

If you mean trusting the users you connect to, in comparison with e-mail, SNSs have many mechanisms for verifying the user you are about to connect to is trustworthy (friends lists, recommendations / endorsements, content creation histories).

Despite trust issues, the interaction mechanisms and content objects on the social networking sites have to be interesting to maintain persistent use.

Does the whole idea of collaborative sites open the door for problems with mis-information?

You have to trust the source of the information, and balance that with some common sense as to how frequently updated / how many contributions have been made to that source (if it is on a wiki for example). As online identities become closely integrated, it becomes easier to see if a source is trustworthy based on their contacts or previously-created content.

You would expect that an article about George W. Bush would be fairly reliable (being under constant scrutiny) whereas an article about Kate Bush or Vannevar Bush may be slightly less so.

What systems or technologies should companies be looking to in order to harness collective wisdom and help individuals make decisions?

A corporate wiki would be a good start. Something like SocialText, which combines wikis and blogs, where wiki pages or team blogs can be commented upon and this can help in the documentation of decisions required to progress, for example, designs, projects, proposals, etc.

What are the usage scenarios of microformats for the financial sector? Are there financial services-specific microformats or more general microformats (e.g., to improve accessibility) that financial services could potentially use?

Typical usage scenarios relate to saving companies time in keeping third-parties (such as customers or price comparison sites) updated (see more at http://tinyurl.com/3xk82g). An example is using microformats (mfs) to power a system which shows a customer’s loan with the interest calculated daily on the outstanding amount based on an interest rate (taken from a mf-enabled site) and the fixed amount.

Some discussion has occurred on the mf mailing list around using mfs to represent data ranging from online statements to ecommerce receipts, e.g.: a debit figure, a credit figure, a total of any kind; an interest figure. There is a currency-brainstorming area on the mf wiki (http://tinyurl.com/3ax8m6).

There has also been some discussion about using hCalendar for investor relations event entries (http://tinyurl.com/2r3yrl).

Finally, microformats can be added to Excel spreadsheets as a means to embed some “reusable, stable semantics” (http://tinyurl.com/2a3ohp).

What are the key challenges in managing and deploying Semantic Web 2.0 implementations?

  • Deciding if the semantic data is just used internally or exchanged between your application and something / somewhere else.
  • Choosing a Semantic Web ontology or set of ontologies to describe the data used in or by your application (this may require some additional custom vocabulary creation for your domain).
  • Designing an interesting Web 2.0 application, helped somewhat by knowing the semantics contained in the underlying data. See RealTravel for a relevant success story.
  • Promoting usage and encouraging adoption.

What is the best way to structure and expose information (using RDF) to allow the easier generation of mashups of both proprietary and public information? How easy is it to make HTML-type contents compatible with RDF and use semantic search effectively? And how efficient will that conversion be?

If you just want to enhance your existing pages, you can embed RDF directly in the page, using RDFa (which is in XHTML like microformats, except that it can be operated on like RDF). GRDDL can be used to extract RDFa (and also mf) data from these pages into RDF for use by RDF-enabled applications. Otherwise, you could have some RDF data in the background linked from the HTML page.

The idea of the Semantic Web seems to suggest two parallel webs of information (i.e., machine readable and human readable). Will this mean the Semantic Web will only ever service a small niche market?

No, if the foreground application is interesting enough then the background machine-readable data can remain invisible. Think blogs and RSS. It can be widely deployed if the usage scenarios are convincing.

What potential is there to use IM bots as channels of communication with their clients?

See Zimbie.

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