Social networking sites are creeping into the enterprise bringing with them new risks and opportunities

The way people interact is radically changing. In fact, we are in the midst of a social networking revolution which impacts both our personal and professional lives.

Facebook has leapfrogged other popular social networking tools to become the pre-eminent social networking platform. As of February 2008, Facebook had 66m subscribers and it was adding new subscribers at the rate of 250,000 per day. Notably, the single largest growing Facebook demographic is people over the age of 25. These are people who typically spend their waking hours in the corporate world. So it is no surprise that the social networking buzz is extending to the enterprise.

According to Facebook’s official records, many organisational personnel are already subscribers – for example, 30,000 employees from Microsoft, 33,000 employees from IBM, and 20,000 employees from Accenture. So important is the impact of social networking tools, that a recent Gartner report concluded: ‘The failure to consider the impact of social enhancement technology on the performance of the enterprise is a big mistake.’

As consumer services like Facebook find their way into the enterprise, companies are wary of the risks. A recent Forrester survey found that 78% of IT organisations are concerned about the risks of employee-driven, unsanctioned use of Web 2.0 tools and technologies.

Some of the difficult challenges facing organisations, who want to leverage the power of consumer social networking services in the enterprise, include the following:

Security. Organisations are concerned about the exposure of internal business systems to external entities. Information that should be under tight control may be publicly exposed, either accidentally or intentionally.

“Facebook has leapfrogged other popular social networking tools to become the pre-eminent social networking platform.

Control. Going forward, organisations need to decide what to share, how to share and when to share. The conventional wisdom has always been that controlling information is better than sharing it.

Lack of integration – of social software with other tools used by employees. The need to move back and forth between multiple applications and separate windows is what IDC calls "death by navigation." The business cost of death by navigation is extraordinary.

Trust and privacy. Concerns and unease with new methods for interacting with (unknown) contacts

According to leading analysts, the introduction of consumer applications into the workplace by employees to improve productivity or better manage their personal and professional workloads is in its infancy. Yet even in this early stage, use of consumer services in the enterprise is quite extensive. According to a recent Yankee Group study, 86% of corporate end users (not IT executives) already use at least one consumer technology in the workplace.

It is inevitable that employees will introduce services that will increasingly expose their organisations to greater integration and security threats.

Today, organisations typically adopt one or more of the following approaches:

“The failure to consider the impact of social enhancement technology on the performance of the enterprise is a big mistake.


Raise the drawbridges – forbid the use of consumer technologies in the workplace. According to the aforementioned Yankee Group study, 35% of end users report that their IT department blocked the use of a third-party collaboration tool.

Ignore the phenomenon – do nothing to prevent or guide use of consumer technologies in the workplace. A prime example is the use of instant messaging tools at work. In the Yankee Group study, 65% of respondents report that their adoption of unsanctioned collaboration tools has gone unchecked by IT. This is probably the most widely adopted (and most dangerous) approach in effect today.

Provide enterprise ‘look-a-like’ equivalents of consumer services – with this approach, companies try to introduce enterprise-grade software and services to ‘compete’ with consumer tools. Some examples include company home pages, instant messaging tools, and social networking software. Attempts to adopt these ‘private collaboration space’ have, for the most part, failed.

Permit (and even encourage) limited use of consumer tools, subject to corporate policies. This is the most forward-looking policy, though it is not yet widely adopted. The bottom line is that consumerization of IT is a trend that is irreversible. For those that still doubt the impact of this trend, one only has to consider what happened to companies that ignored the Internet.

Social networking is an irreversible mega-trend. As part of the ‘IT consumerization’ wave, social networking is permeating organisational boundaries, with or without corporate blessing. Organisations can either ignore this trend (at their peril) or develop a strategy to leverage the trend to be more successful. Commercial social networking solutions are available, but their implementations have largely failed because people want to reach the contacts already existing on social networking sites.

David Lavenda, is vice president of marketing and product strategy at WorkLight

Social networking tools are taking the world by storm.

MySpace logged 110m unique visitors in January 2008, up 15 % from a year before; Facebook logged over 100m, up 305 %.

Facebook's unique audience in the UK grew by over 7m in one year from about 1m in January 2007 to over 8.5m in 2008 That's an unrivalled growth rate of 712% in a single year, making the UK second only to the United States in the number of active Facebook active users.

For the first time, in Oct 2007, UK Internet visits to social networks overtook visits to web based email services.