Friday, January 11, 2008

Social Networking and Identity Management

A while back Tom Davenport commented on the fact that there seems to be very little "work" in social networking. His point is that despite the fact that adults are accessing sites such as MySpace and FaceBook in increasing numbers -- often from work -- they aren't using the social networking site to do work. They are socializing on work time. Even the most work-related of the social networking sites, LinkedIn, has little to do with a person's current employment and is more focused on finding their next job.

It seems Tom Davenport is not alone in this assessment. The BBC has reported that a number of companies are blocking access to social networking sites to avoid time wasting activities. And in a recent review of web 2.0 technologies in InformationWeek, social networking was listed last in terms of the web 2.0 technologies the companies surveyed considered "important to their business".

I have no argument that current usage of public social networking sites is more social than professional today. However, I am concerned when Davenport (and clearly others, according to the InformationWeek survey) generalize this to imply there is no value in social networking to the corporation. As Tom puts it, "let's agree to keep social networking social. No more prattle about business applications .... 'Hooking up' does not have a business meaning."

The problem is that there is more going on here than just "hooking up". A number of commentators are bemoaning the fact that the MySpace generation is forsaking email for their social networks. But I haven't seen anyone asking why.

Its not for technical capability -- the messaging functionality in MySpace and FaceBook is rather rudimentary when compared with mature email clients. It's not just for "hooking up", because that wouldn't require them to abandon email -- and the story goes that they are using social networking for all communication in place of email, not just socializing.

So, what is it? The faddish aspect of it may play a part. (Which implies that they will go back to email once the fad has run its course.) That could be, but I suspect there is something more. And I think I have figured out what it is.

What attracts people to social networking sites is not the capabilities themselves but the fact that they are associated with an identity they can manage themselves. Not the technical identity management that IT types talk about -- digital certificates, two-factor authentication and such -- but the personal and emotional identity of who you are, what you look like, and what your interests are.

When you leave a message on MySpace, you are not sending it to an abstract mailbox, you are leaving it for someone you "know", someone with a face, a description, likes and dislikes. Similarly, when you receive a message that message is associated with a person and their profile. Now, there are plenty of questions about the truthfulness of those identities -- whether the pictures are really them or they are who they say they are -- but you do know who they purport to be.

So social networking provides both the connectivity (the "hooking up") as well as the self-managed identities that make the connections possible. How does that apply within a corporation? Within the corporation, the connections are not all voluntary -- you connect with some people professionally, some personally, and many you simply have to work with because the job demands it. You also have an identity -- your corporate identity. But that can be surprisingly sparse.

When I first joined the company I now work for, one of the most useful tools I discovered was a service that lets you look up anyone in the company by first name, last name, email address, etc. The application gave basic information like name and address as well as telephone numbers, their manager's name, and other information.

This online equivalent of the white pages proved (and continues to prove) immensely useful. Not, as you might initially think, for finding telephone numbers or email addresses, but for finding out more about the individuals themselves. If someone I don't know sends me mail asking a question, I look them up to find out why they might be asking -- who do they work for and what group do they work in? -- which might help me better frame the answer. Similarly, if someone leaves me voicemail requesting a meeting, I will look them up to find out what city and timezone they are in so we can schedule a concall at a mutually acceptable hour.

But there are significant limitations to this application. It only knows what is in the company's employee database. This is the information the company uses to facilitate my employment. Many of the fields are well-suited to computers but not very meaningful to humans. Fields such as badge number, location code, employee type, job code...

So, for example, although the database can tell you my job class is something like "technical consulting", it really knows nothing about what I actually do. When I started working in the field 26 years ago, my job title was "tech writer 1" (or 2, I don't remember). Now I am something like tech consultant n. (I still can't remember the number.)

For the first couple of years, my official job title was reasonably accurate; I was a technical writer and little else. Since then, my actual job and my official title have strayed farther and farther apart. This is because from an HR perspective, my title or job code is solely to determine my place in the company and my approximate salary range. (I suspect the same is true of most large companies.) As a result, almost everyone I know has both an official job title (as defined by HR) and an unofficial, self-declared title. It is this second title they put on business cards: the one that describes what you do.

Unfortunately, there is no where to record this second title in the employee database. In fact, there is very little information in it that the employee controls. No picture, no job description, no personal information. As a result, as useful as the white pages service is, it barely scratches the surface of the employee's true identity.

Which is why we built a small internal application to merge the basic information from the employee database with self-managed content: a photo, a bio (free-form), links such as home pages, team sites, blogs, or personal web sites, and a list of interests (a browseable folksonomy). Is it full social networking? No, it is bare bones. But it does provide some of the core functions of social networking -- particularly the personal identity management -- that is missing in the corporate environment. It also allows us to take advantage of the two identities -- the personal identity and the official corporate identity, to include linkages to existing connections -- mailing lists, organizational structures, group memberships -- automatically

The result, for us, is not revolutionary, but serendipitous. A number of people have commented -- positively -- on how beneficial it is simply to be able to find a photograph of the people they have spoken to for years, but never met in person. Also, we are seeing a significant number of people actively managing their profile -- to keep the lists of interests and projects they are working on up to date. Something that is very difficult to maintain in the official "skills" databases which insist on specific fields (and values) and do not provide any real self management or self expression.

I am not claiming we have solved the "enterprise 2.0" problem for social networking, but we have found one of the attractors of web 2.0 that can have a direct impact on business processes and effectiveness.

1 comment:

Rusty Weston, My Global Career said...

Andrew - Your post is absolutely spot-on. Not much is known yet about how companies use social networking in a programmatic way to achieve business goals. However, I am studying this question along with FoundREAD, a Gigaom blog, and if you don't mind the promotion, I'd like to invite your readers to check out our comprehensive State of Social Networking 2008 study, while it is still in progress. The survey is at: