Editor's Note: The following is a guest post by SharePoint Server MVP Natalya Voskresenskaya as part of the MVP Award Program Blog's "MVPs for Office 365" series. Natalya Voskresenskaya, had been working in the field of Information Technology for over 13 years. With experience in design, architecture, development and deployment of Web based applications, since early days of 2000 her main area of concentration had been development of portal solutions. Natalya delivers enterprise Portal applications and business solutions, as well as portal systems architecture, design, implementation, and best practices guidance. She has been involved in SharePoint Technologies since the 2003 version. An avid blogger at http://spforsquirrels.blogspot.com/ and writer, Natalya strives to share her passion for SharePoint and its community, and is often speaking at SharePoint community event as well as major conferences. Besides SharePoint, Natalya’s interest had been captured by another enterprise level search technology FAST, to her joy these technologies had been integrated to compliment each other’s functionality. In 2009, Natalya co-founded Arcovis LLC http://www.arcovis.com, a business solutions consulting company focused on high quality SharePoint delivery. She has been awarded the prestigious Microsoft Most Valuable Professional award for the first time in year 2008. Here is Natalya’s latest book on Microsoft Enterprise Search Professional Microsoft Search: FAST Search, SharePoint Search, and Search Server

The SharePoint 2010 platform offers a wide variety of core features including document management, records management, BI, search, workflow and social networking to name a few. Microsoft and its partners have done a great job of showcasing the value of these features and have shared strategies to help organizations take advantage of them.   However, of these core features, it is my observation that the Social Networking aspects of SharePoint 2010 are underutilized by customers and therefore the full potential of their implementations are not realized.

The most common objection I have seen to the notion of social networking within the enterprise has to do with a misconception that social networking platforms are not productive in the work environment.  I often see is a misguided comparison made to Facebook and other external social networking sites which management views as time-wasters. Other barriers to adoption include uncertainties about allowing uncensored comments by users, a difficulty in justifying the investment and the struggle involved with getting buy-in from the business.

 Below is a short list of key areas where Social Networking in the enterprise can create a competitive advantage for businesses.  I have found these points to be valuable in driving conversations with businesses that do not immediately see the value of investing in a social networking solution in their organization.

Retain collective knowledge / protect IP

The proliferation of external social networking sites poses an obvious risk for companies as employees can inadvertently reveal company initiatives, vendor connections or other confidential information (see the section below on planning).  By building social networks behind the firewall companies create a venue for employees to share this type of information internally instead of on a public site.  It also acknowledges that social networking is now woven into the fabric of our lives.  Employees are used to communicating this way and smart companies are capitalizing on this trend by encouraging users to share IP and connect with their peers in a way that benefits the organization.  When this information is shared internally, companies can more easily retain and reuse the collective knowledge and wisdom essential to running the business long after employees have moved on to other roles within the company or left the organization entirely.

Minimize ramp-up time for new employees (informal training)

Social networking behind the firewall creates an effective knowledge management solution that can drive formal as well as informal information and expertise sharing. Through SharePoint 2010 forums, wikis and blogs, companies are building strong support systems as well as comprehensive training materials. Social networking provides a platform where new employees can learn from the real experts within the company, minimizing the time it takes them to get up to speed and become productive.  Learning and taking pointers from people that have real-world experience working within the company and understand the culture of the organization can be more effective and less time-consuming than formal training classes.

Information transparency and expertise surfacing

Social Networking platforms allow organizations to unlock information silos and build connections across business groups where communication does not normally occur. Social networks facilitate a new communication pattern where sharing and collaboration foster collective problem solving.  The knowledge management and expertise surfacing facilitated by SharePoint user profiles, My Sites and news feeds as well as the ability to tag content, bridge the gaps between content repositories and can reveal important patterns, information and current activities that might otherwise go unnoticed.  

Wikis and blogs can now replace inadequate file shares that have outlived their usefulness and community oriented sites can serve as project management, product development and support hubs where information along with social feedback is recorded.  Specialists that are authoritative sources in specific areas can be revealed through contributions to online communities, thus permitting organizations to discover hidden talents.

Create more powerful portals by delivering context to the content

Modern organizations store vast amounts of data and users can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information available to them.  Adding a dimension of social context allows them to get their arms around the body of information by helping them identify information that is most relevant to them. 

Many businesses place a lot of importance on their corporate taxonomy and use it to classify and organize their content.  This can certainly be very useful but it is generic.  Corporate taxonomies describe how a company views its information but in their day-to-day functions employees may find it much more useful to view information through the lens of their own context and that of their colleagues.  SharePoint provides a tool set that allows users to track colleagues’ activities and the content they author while search provides relevancy via social distance by boosting the relevancy of content authored by people closer to me within the company org chart.

Search and Analytics

Search, while not specifically a Social Networking feature is a critical component of any Social Networking platform.  A well-integrated search solution not only allows users to find social data but can also facilitate more transparency and help to “make sense” of information.  SharePoint Enterprise Search and analytics produce relevancy within user behavior and the business needs and direction along with gleaning of evolving content. The analytics help in understanding how to manage the social data and whether it can be self-managed, identifying talents and authoritative sources through monitoring of activities and tagging. It also provides an operational intelligence that captures development of trends and changes in user behavior.

Why SharePoint

When SharePoint is already deployed in the organization it is an obvious choice for creating Social Networking solutions.  Implementing a separate platform introduces a number of risks including creating information silos and creating additional overhead in maintenance, training, management, disaster recovery, backup, hardware, etc.  Additionally, integration with other systems that are critical to users may not be an option with other solutions while SharePoint is designed with this purpose in mind.  In fact, if SharePoint is already being used in the organization it is most probably already connected to at least one of the company’s core systems.  Lastly, if SharePoint is already implemented it does not cost anything to begin utilizing the Social Networking aspects of it.  Save money on implementation and licensing costs by simply taking better advantage of the tool already deployed in the environment.

 If SharePoint is not currently installed, it is still a compelling choice.  The most obvious reason is that it adds a huge amount of value in that it does not only provide Social features - it is a platform on which to build business solutions of many different types with Social features already integrated.  SharePoint is also flexible and easily extendable by nature which facilitates rapid development of custom functionality.

 It should also be noted there are a number of third-party add-on products to enhance SharePoint’s Social Networking feature set.  This may be a good choice for those seeking functionality that does not come out of the box but like the idea of utilizing SharePoint for this purpose.

Planning

One important point to make is that it is critical to plan ahead for Social Networking.  Whether you go with SharePoint or another solution, creating a useful, manageable Social Networking platform is not a matter of simply flipping a switch (beware of sales pitches that make it seem this way!).  In fact, when working with SharePoint customers, I always encourage putting some thought up front to Social Networking, even if the initial solution does not involve any social features.  This helps to foster a more organic, integrated experience vs. something that feels like an afterthought.

On the subject of planning, something organizations may want to consider is the creation of policies and guidelines that spell out how employees are allowed to engage on social networking sites both internally and externally.  Internally, companies may find that social networking sites are self-policing - after all employees will be aware that their comments are being published to the company, including their superiors.  But on external sites, employees may not be interacting with the company’s interests in mind since when using these sites they have their “personal” hat rather than their “professional” hat.

Conclusion

Social Networking within the enterprise is distinctly different and provides a different set of values to companies than Facebook and other public social networking platforms.  Social Networking behind the firewall allows companies to own and protect their intellectual property and can provide real competitive advantages by growing and strengthening the workforce.

Microsoft has invested heavily into the social networking features of SharePoint 2010, but poorly planned and managed online communities can be a barrier to their effectiveness. Planning up front and creating a road map will help ensure success over time and justify the investment involved in creating a social networking solution.