Social Networking and the Business: Friend or Foe?

Anyone who has teenagers is well aware that social networking sites are becoming a primary communications vehicle. reports that 37% of adult and 70% of teen Internet users access a social networking site at least once a month. Meanwhile, advertising on such sites is growing as well, with worldwide spending in 2008 estimated at over $2 billion, and growth to $4 billion projected for 2011.

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While social networking is busy changing the way people interact with one another, the marketplace is still unsure about its business ramifications. And many CIOs in particular are wondering whether to view it as a boon or an impediment.

The bigger question, however, has to do with IT and its ability to manage change. Most new technologies impact IT at some point—as those of us who survived the introduction of Internet radio quickly discovered. Suddenly, network bandwidth was being gobbled up, mission-critical applications slowed down, and nobody could figure out why.

In the case of social networking sites, the resource toll may not be as heavy as the impact on employee productivity; users in the dating game might check from time-to-time, and the team likely gathers around the PC once in a while to watch the latest stupid pet trick on YouTube.

Discussing the impact of any innovation be it AJAX, REST, VOIP, SaaS, or social networking is really a discussion about change. One reason why is, in our business, change is synonymous with risk. Our research indicates, for example, that between 25-and-80 percent of IT infrastructure changes have an adverse impact on IT production systems. For this reason, IT’s initial response to change is often to take the “little Dutch boy” approach—stick a finger into the dike to prevent the flow of new technologies into and throughout the enterprise.

Over time, we found that approach did not work well. Users found ways to work around IT and the business turned to outsourcing to replace and/or supplement IT departments viewed as overly expensive and/or inflexible. The bloom has largely faded from the outsourcing rose, but the role of IT has substantially changed from what it was even five years ago.

Today, IT is seldom the provider of 100% of a company’s technology services, although it does typically oversee the delivery of these services. Technology services are differentiating into utilities and business-differentiators. Utility services like email and remote access are common to almost every company, while business-centric applications require deep understanding of the company’s industry, its competitive landscape, and its business goals and objectives.

While utility services are increasingly offloaded to software-as-a-service (SaaS) and hosting providers, business-centric services are thrusting IT onto center stage as a contributor instead of a cost center. IT is becoming the technology consultant to the business, the group that keeps on top of both the business and new technologies, leveraging them to achieve business goals.

What does all of this have to do with social networking? Social networking sites should not be ruled out as potential business assets just because they tend to be frequented by adolescents. Evaluating them for their applicability to the business should be an ongoing activity, and some very large companies are already investing IT cycles in doing just that.

Changing Interactions

Most IT professionals, at some point in their career, find themselves on the road more than they are at home. While this can be interesting short-term, for most of us life as a road warrior loses its shine after a year or two of wearing suits and living out of a suitcase. With this in mind, one of the most intriguing features of social networking is it has subtly altered the way human beings interact by banishing distance and turning unlikely strangers into friends.

There are significant political and social implications to this evolution, but most of them are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that Internet users, and the younger generation in particular, are experts in terms of interacting with distant people as if they were in the same room. This “social-networking generation” is accustomed to developing relationships and collaborating remotely, and this familiarity will likely have profound impact on the world of work over time.

This generation will expect to work remotely, to develop budgets and business plans with colleagues in other countries, and to consider people they have never met to be close friends. The world is far smaller than it used to be, and online meetings will become the norm instead of the exception, and business travel the exception instead of the rule. From this perspective, Cisco’s telepresence initiative is right on the mark

For today’s IT executives, watching trends and “real world” technology adoption can give valuable insight into future direction. Social networking sites, for example, provide clear indications of what users want, even if they don’t know it yet themselves.