"How did I do this before the rise of social networks?"
I ask myself this question repeatedly, often while performing some mundane activity. The task can be as simple as finding a friend's phone number I've misplaced or as complex as finding a potential hire in a different country. Trying to remember how we functioned before being effortlessly linked with endless numbers of people around the globe can be as challenging as recalling what weekends were like before you had kids.
Like kids, social networks are growing up – Facebook turned 10 this year. But it's time for us to stop viewing them as childish pastimes and take these preteens seriously.
I can hear the collective groans already. Many perceive social networks as a fluffy indulgence at best and the end of human interactions at worst. The truth is, they're neither. To quote Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman in their book, Networked: The New Social Operating System: "People aren't hooked on gadgets, they are hooked on each other."
It's gross understatement to call Mr. Rainie, the director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American life project, and Prof. Wellman, director of NetLab at the University of Toronto's faculty of information, experts in the field. Prof. Wellman, 72, studied social networks for years before the term became synonymous with Facebook. Incidentally, he's a voracious user of Twitter.
In their book, the two not only defend against claims that social technologies are ruining civilization; they explain how, from a business perspective, they unleash enormous potential. Being able to tap into not only everything and everyone your employees know – but also everything and everyone in their social networks – is a huge benefit and has become a integral part of problem solving. Companies not capitalizing on this risk losing out.
Social applications magnify people's ability to network and make it easier for companies to tap into their staff's skills and knowledge. Have a problem to solve? Just throw it onto your company's internal social network and watch as someone on your staff comes up with a solution.
As social networks grow up, the business case for utilizing them more effectively at work keeps getting stronger. Within a global, white-collar organization there's a positive correlation between the number of unique contacts an employee possesses and their success in the company, according to a study from the Sloan School of Management cited by Mr. Rainie and Prof. Wellman. It's not only the number of contacts but also the closeness of those contacts that results in an uptick in real revenue and completed projects for a company.
Quantifying that connectedness may be the real secret sauce of social networks inside organizations. Prof. Wellman defines individuals with these attributes as the crucial connectors between different groups.
"It's not the number of people you know, but how can you bring otherwise disconnected groups together [that provides value]," Prof. Wellman said in an interview. This turns employees into valuable "information brokers."
These are people who understand the problems that need to be solved and hold the information to fix it – or know who does – and can bring the two together quickly. These "information brokers" are becoming increasingly important in the new economy, as the workplace evolves, allowing employees to be more physically dispersed.
Could it just be a matter of time before hiring is based on our social networking score? While it may sound a bit farfetched, the size and nature of your social network could well become a key attribute worth broadcasting to prospective employers.
Slowly but surely, companies are capitalizing on these attributes.
Carrie Basham Young, the principal of Talksocialtome.com, a San Francisco-based enterprise social networking consultancy, said that over the past two years companies are starting to understand social networks' power as a mechanism for employees to share knowledge and avoid redundant, repetitive tasks.
"We used to call internal social applications 'Facebook for the Enterprise' because it was an easy analogy. But that created the perception that social tools were all play and no work, which was a turnoff to companies," Ms. Young said.
Since then, she said, dozens of powerful case studies have come out documenting the value of internal social applications to companies, demonstrating that being social in the business world is no longer a risky experiment.
Still, the actual return on investment – viewed in dollars and cents – can be challenging to calculate.
"Because there is no way to measure every aspect of the network's impact, it's really about understanding the incremental value that the tools bring to a company across people, groups and systems," Ms. Young said.
She advises companies to adopt a more holistic approach to capture the value that social applications bring to the workplace, such as improved co-operation among staff and happier employees who no longer have to waste time finding answers to specific questions.
"You can't put a dollar figure on that," she added.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Leah Eichler talked about this issue at TEDx St. John's. You can watch the talk here.