IT Meets the New Kid on the Block

IT Meets the New Kid on the Block

The mass adoption of social networking tools, including instant messaging, is causing a lot of CIOs to grapple with the question: do tools used for social purposes have any place in the office?

The business world seems to be on a constant collision course with new technologies, some of which are beneficial to the organization and some of which are not. Recently, the workplace has been colliding with that burgeoning technology-based phenomenon known as social networking.

The mass adoption of social networking tools, including instant messaging, is causing a lot of CIOs to grapple with the question: do tools used for social purposes have any place in the office?

Many organizations have taken the firm stance that they do not. They ban instant messaging applications and restrict visits to popular social networking sites, causing resentment amongst the "Generation Ys" entering the workforce. Other companies have welcomed the collision of the social world and the work world by adopting networking tools that enhance productivity and engage employees in a positive and enterprising way.

This article presents perspectives from three organizations that have chosen the latter course.

Defining social

Networking While the term social networking evokes images of college students sharing pictures of a night on the town, for our purposes it encompasses technology designed to help organizations improve collaboration and communication among employees.

Social networking benefits organizations in various ways:

  • Improved information sharing: Social networking helps companies leverage the collective knowledge of their user bases. Through interactive internal publishing sites such as wikis, businesses may find that employees come together to solve problems and help the organization in new ways.
  • Better information management: Social networking helps people find information, particularly the data so often locked away in colleagues' brains. Some tools give workers the ability to find subject-matter experts, whose expertise may be called upon to answer a quick question or to support a new team involved in a business opportunity.
  • Enhanced information security: Though this might seem counter-intuitive, social networking tools can in fact enhance information security by providing a centralized, manageable site for data exchanges. With administrative controls that allow companies to indicate who is allowed to access what data, these tools can provide an extra layer of protection.
The following organizations each have their own story to tell about social networking, and how it has benefited them.

Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency

If an initiative involves promoting economic development within Atlantic Canada, chances are the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) has a hand in it. The Agency is focused on making the region's economy more innovative, productive and competitive. ACOA works with partners to encourage innovation and help businesses access the training and skills they need to remain competitive.

When the Government of Canada introduced a new accountability framework for its departments and agencies calling for improved IT governance, compliance and transparency of internal processes, ACOA sought to streamline its internal workflow and tighten integration with its productivity tools. In particular, it wanted to develop a portal architecture that would enable it to place documents and manuals online.

According to CIO Ronald Surette, ACOA also wanted to extend the functionality of its software development tools to reduce the time and cost needed to develop its business client applications. Such a framework would enable the Agency to quickly assemble composite applications from existing systems. "The goal was to help our staff become as efficient as possible," Surette says. "We didn't realize then that we were essentially developing a platform for social networking as well."

With help from systems implementers NexInnovations (now Softchoice) and Infotech Canada, ACOA installed a portal based on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. When installed in 2006, the portal allowed the Agency to improve its collaboration infrastructure and enhance its foundation for developing Web-based applications.

In time, ACOA took the portal platform a few steps further and added social networking components. "Our greatest success has been with the wiki used as a corporate glossary and, interestingly, as a means of managing help-files for our corporate applications," Surette says. "We're converting all of our help files to the wiki with very good results."

ACOA now has a way for employees to share documents, make suggestions on projects, and largely draw on the collective knowledge of the organization. "When staff saw how easy it was to manage wiki pages, they couldn't get enough of it," he adds.

Within My Site -- the user's personal home page to manage documents, content, links, and contacts -- employees can see which documents their colleagues recently accessed. At first skeptical about the effectiveness of this capability, Surette learned that his staff members considered it a must-have. "I took it down, but my staff asked me to put it back up. They said they depended on it to see what I was doing, and what I thought was important." Employees also seem to enjoy being able to find information according to job description instead of subject matter. "This is a very interesting social phenomenon -- it really permits people to 'people browse' to find information," Surette says.

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