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Social Networking is Creating New Roles

Opportunities in integration, analytics, and UI/UE design

BY PEGGY ALBRIGHT

Social networking is well on its way to becoming a killer app in the corporate environment. When applied within a business or enterprise, social networking tools permit employees to exchange ideas and collaborate more effectively than conventional tools like email, facilitating better informed and faster decision-making and improved productivity.

As business-to-consumer communications tools, social networking applications give end-users new ways to engage with company sales and support personnel and new opportunities to interact with other users to discuss products and services. In a business-to-business context, social networking tools can make it easier for companies to work with partners and suppliers to improve processes or operations.

Although most companies have begun to embrace social networking, its potential has yet to be fully realized. Computing professionals have a prime window of opportunity now to carve out a social networking role within their companies and advance along with the field as it matures.

Social networking in the enterprise

Social networking is one of various terms used to describe the use of blogs, micro blogs, discussion rooms, instant messaging, podcasts, video-sharing platforms, wikis, and other interactive online media. The category is also referred to as social media, social computing, social business, social commerce, and Enterprise 2.0.

Roughly 80 percent of the largest 100 international companies as of last year were using at least one of the most popular social networking platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or corporate blogs, according to the global communications firm Burson-Marsteller. Smaller companies are jumping on the bandwagon too. A recent study by Techaisle, reported by InformationWeek, found that 70 percent of US small businesses with between 1-99 employees plan to use social networking tools in the next year.

Many companies are developing various types of social networking solutions for internal or commercial use. IBM says that hundreds of thousands of people use its platform, called IBM Connections, which it offers in-house and externally to large and small enterprise customers. The platform now has about 15,000 public communities that employees can join and about 15,000 private communities created for specific groups of people. HP has an internal platform called WaterCooler that is used by more than 130,000 employees to exchange ideas and information, post blogs, and collaborate.

While IBM and HP provide good illustrations of early, successful implementations, most companies are not that far along, although they are moving forward with their strategies. According to the Altimeter Group, companies in general have been developing their social networking programs gradually and cautiously. According to a February 2011 survey published by the firm, more than half of companies that have social networking programs said their programs are in the intermediate stage; the remainder were fairly evenly split between novice and advanced stages.

Susan Etlinger, a consultant at the Altimeter Group, says 2011 will become notable for social networking in the business environment because meaningful numbers of companies will integrate social platforms with other digital media used throughout their enterprises and take their social strategies into operational status. “We’re at the point when it has gone beyond experimentation,” she said. “Companies are proceeding to get value out of it.”

Need for integration

As social networking gains traction and sophistication in the enterprise, computing professionals should look for opportunities to design, develop, and build solutions, and to integrate in-house or third-party solutions into a website or internal communications systems. Additional opportunities can be sought within the burgeoning ecosystem of vendors that is growing to supply companies with social networking products and solutions.

Because social networking tools will unleash a constant and extraordinarily high-volume flow of data generated by employees, customers, and business partners, some of the most exciting and plentiful job opportunities will evolve out of the need to manage, measure, understand, and make use of that data.

People who can integrate systems and data will become very important. That’s because companies will need to find ways to bridge information silos between business divisions and other sources so that the social data and intelligence generated from various systems can be shared and acted upon in real time to drive sales and revenues.

Salesforce.com’s recent acquisition of the social media monitoring and analytics software firm Radian6 illustrates the importance of data integration to companies, Etlinger said. With Radian6 capabilities, Salesforce.com will be able to integrate social data from popular online communities into its solutions, yielding enhanced intelligence that business customers can use to better market and sell their services.

New field of social analytics

The need for new and better analytics—one of the most exciting developments to come along with social networking in the enterprise—has introduced a new career category called “social analytics.” Going far beyond traditional Web analytics, it involves mining the data generated in social networking to understand how people use the new media, how they form relationships and interact with one another, what their patterns of interaction are, which communities they engage with, and where they make purchases. And it involves making the data meaningful so business professionals can use it.

Social analytics represents an important new field, a huge growth opportunity, and “there is a lot of hiring in that area,” says Rawn Shah, social business transformation expert at IBM.

While the field of social analytics is alluring, it’s still very new. According to Bernardo Huberman, HP senior fellow and director of social computing research group at HP Labs, the hardest part of social data to understand, and yet one of its most valuable aspects, is its potential to yield an understanding of people’s online or consumer intentions.

Ambitious computing professionals seeking a role in social networking might want to treat this challenge as an opportunity to innovate. Huberman, who specializes in this field, has developed software tools that can help explain and anticipate how people pay attention to online content; such understanding will be necessary to optimize how websites are designed to maximize usage, he asserts, and will require software professionals to develop interdisciplinary skills if they want to excel in this environment.

“You need special insight into how we, as social beings, work,” Huberman says. “That is more social science than computer science.”

Developing better user interfaces

According to IBM’s Shah, the user interface and user experience become more crucial to a platform or product than ever before when social networking is involved. As a result, the work that goes into these features is more important too. Shah says there’s a vital and growing role for software engineers to make sure sites function according to the ways people like to interact with one another use the system. The role includes not just user-centered design, but the project management and software engineering functions that must be performed while a system is developed.

UI and UE skills needed for this work are much more technical and sophisticated than the graphics programming skills typically associated with website design, and distinguish this work from that established field. Shah says university computer science and software engineering curricula should pay more attention to these new needs to help advance the profession and to train more software professionals for the task. Software professionals who can provide these skills now or obtain suitable training could enhance their roles within their organizations.

Shah notes that applications and services need to offer an exceptional user experience, not just from the standpoint of the site’s ability to optimize interactions between employees, customers, partners, and vendors, but also because effective interactions can make services more personal. This is especially important for intranet communications, he says, because it can humanize the workforce, which reduces frustration, speeds up the pace of work, and helps people share and reuse knowledge to improve efficiencies in the workplace.

“The more we understand each other, the higher the quality of the work,” he says. “Humanity counts. It’s what makes work flow faster, and in the end that’s what we want to do.”

Another reason to focus on the user experience is the fundamental need for intuitive services. Etlinger says her firm’s research has revealed that while companies are gearing up to advance their social networking strategies, they will not invest much in training and education associated with these strategies. If a business wants its social networking platform or application adopted, the user experience has to be so intuitive that no training is needed. That’s how social networking applications take off in the consumer market, and that’s how they’ll spread in the business sector too.

“Those who really understand user experience and user design will be highly valued,” she said. CW (21 July, 2011)

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