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12:30 PM
Alice LaPlante
Alice LaPlante

How To Succeed In Business

It's the year of social networking. Oh no, wait, that was 2003. Because by mid-2004, pundits were already predicting the death of what was being called just a passing fad. But social networking couldn't have been quite moribund because people, with great fanfare, pronounced it dead again almost a

It's the year of social networking. Oh no, wait, that was 2003.

Because by mid-2004, pundits were already predicting the death of what was being called just a passing fad. But social networking couldn't have been quite moribund because people, with great fanfare, pronounced it dead again almost a year later (in 2005).

And now that social networking is really going gangbusters (see this week's article on the subject), some analysts are scrambling to use the "B" word. Go figure.The latest twist: Social networking is now ready for business. Stories with snappy anecdotes (you know the kind--"Joe Smith was looking for a job with no luck, until one day...") supposedly demonstrate how online networking is finally benefiting professionals.

Still, even that's déjà vu all over again. Catch yourself saying social networking for the rest of us is the latest Big Thing, and you'll find yourself back on the cutting edge of...2004.

But it certainly seems that the phenomenal growth of teen and 20-something social communities such as MySpace (which grew 367% in the last year, according to Nielsen/NetRatings) and FaceBook (which only launched in January) really is more than a fad now. It really does represent a seismic shift in how people--younger people in particular--use the Internet to create communities.

And perhaps the time has come for business users to exchange information, develop more--and stronger--personal relationships, and in general scratch each other's backs through these hyperconnections. Some optimistic people are even calling social networking for business the "next CRM."

(As a side note, almost 50% of all Web users now belong to one of the 300-something social networks that now exist--and all this follows a recent Gartner advisory warning IT executives to pay close attention to consumer technologies if they want to stay competitive, as the consumer technologies of today are the corporate productivity applications of tomorrow.)

The premise of social networking is that the friend of my friend is also my friend. Today we have business-oriented networks such as LinkedIn (which has five million users and counting), Visible Path, Spoke Software, and CollectiveX--which is the latest company to claim it has finally found a way to automate one of the most important things we do in business: connect with others to our mutual benefit.

Those who say yea that it's finally working argue that these Web sites take a business person's best asset--his or her rolodex--online and leverage the heck out of it. That they're especially good at finding contacts at companies you otherwise might never get access to. That without being connected you'll be outmatched by mega-linked-in competitors and colleagues.

Those who say nay (or at least "not yet") ask, "Who really wants to be continually bothered by strangers?" Also, they say, search is still a much more effective tool for finding information on the Internet (although industry observers say we're about to see a convergence of search and social networking). Finally, they argue, "Who has the time?" Teenagers can spend hours chatting about music online, but for busy professionals that's another thing. Add that to the fact that studies show employees already waste too much time surfing the Internet, and you can up the distraction quotient by a magnitude.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. The bottom line is, people network. That's what we do in our personal lives, and that's what we do in business. (Gartner estimates that the average worker already belongs to 10 networks.) We need our personal social networks to stay happy, even to stay alive. We use our business networks to find jobs, sell things, get ideas, find customers. That technology is a valuable tool to help us isn't in doubt. The question is, what form should technology take to support the natural ways we already do business?

To add to the growing pile of anecdotes, I have a friend who absolutely dotes on LinkedIn. An independent contracts attorney in Silicon Valley, he has fueled his business considerably by leveraging his ever-growing network. On the other hand, I know many, many people who signed up for free accounts on social networking services only to yawn and never go back.

Everyone is careful to say these networks rely on trust. But there's a gap in the logic. As the saying goes, trust has to be earned. It can't be uploaded via an Outlook address book. What makes my rolodex valuable is its exclusiveness: I don't let just anyone peek into it. And it's not only reporters who have to be careful with their sources. Credibility swings both ways. Getting pinged too many times by that friend of a friend of a friend can be downright annoying when you're trying to get your real work done.

As Rob Preston says in his excellent article on collaboration, these tools haven't failed to catch on because of a lack of technical sophistication, but because of human behavioral factors. Traditional turf wars aren't just going to go away just because these cool new technologies are available. Until business people are willing to share much more than they currently do, all the bits and bytes will be for naught.

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