FT: Social Networking: skills that confer a business advantage

To get the most value out of social networking within a company, there must be ways of measuring how employees are using the tools and rewards for beneficial interactions.

That is the view of Marc Smith, senior research sociologist at Microsoft Research. Finding experts within the organisation and making sure contributors feel valued is crucial, according to Dr Smith’s research.

Leveraging a business’s social networks creates “architectures of co-operation” avoiding problems of traditional knowledge management (KM), he says. “The biggest asset of any enterprise is what your people know and they keep going home with it.

“Institutional memories are fragile. KM attempts to create the infrastructure for knowledge in the enterprise but its limits are the limits of understanding of institutions. KM assumed everybody would be delighted to give up everything.”

Socially oriented systems such as wikis (collaborative documents that anyone can edit) can overcome that reluctance by identifying who is contributing information and help; measure what that means to the company or to partners and customers; and reward it like any other contribution – which can be a big shift from current attitudes.

“Often, enterprises spend a lot of effort incentivising the wrong behaviour. They don’t see themselves as a group – and a group that doesn’t know itself is not even a group. Software can make businesses visible to themselves; social networks are often the real structure of a company.

“Making all this visible will mean that what should have been rewarded all along gets rewarded – and once you reward the right thing, you probably get more of it.

“In the world of Sarbanes-Oxley, we’re talking about helping people who want to help each other by making their help of one another visible and accountable to their management.”

There is more than one kind of valuable behaviour in a social network. Dr Smith has identified several types of contributor.

The most obvious is “the answer person, the guru, the go-to person, the knowledge fountain, the person who is all about giving to others the short factual piece of information they need to re-vector their task”.

Another type is the “reply magnet”. “They are the person who comes in and says ‘I was reading this article that’s relevant to us’; the person who brings in what’s interesting, what’s topical. They dictate what people talk about but not what they say about it. They are agenda-setters not conversation controllers and they almost never talk about the topic themselves.”

And if there are “vandal hunters” in the organisation, it might not even need to appoint editors or moderators to oversee wikis or other informal knowledge tools. “A vandal hunter does not generate content,” explains Dr Smith. “A vandal hunter undoes damage to content, so you have a content creator and a content massager.”

The tools to analyse social networks are still being developed but Dr Smith’s team works on three.

Netscan was developed for newsgroups but can analyse contributions in other discussion and authoring systems. C#ung (pronounced Chung, and short for “C# universal network/graph system”) displays information from Excel spreadsheets as tree maps, which show hierarchies, such as the most frequent and active participants.

And a future version of Snarf, a Microsoft Outlook add-on that prioritises mail from regular correspondents – for which Dr Smith was responsible – could use C#ung to show where in an organisation’s hierarchy an e-mail comes from, to provide understanding of who is asking for information.

While many organisations are concerned about systems such as Facebook interfering with productivity, Dr Smith claims benefits even from non-work-related social networking. “There are efficiency gains. Knowing how to know people is the number one skill in business; networking is a commercially valuable skill.”

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