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CIOs make social networking their business

The Real Niel explores the world of Facebook and finds it's not just kid's stuff. CIOs can enable corporate social networks that range from new-age corporate newsletters to collaborative tools for engineers.

As IT leaders, what are we to make of social networking for our businesses? Is social networking just a new name for the collaboration we have spent the last 20 years enabling? Or is it the next silver bullet that is going to validate IT's value to the business? Or is it simply another set of applications we will have to design, implement and support -- one more brick on the pile?

Niel Nickolaisen
The Real Niel
Niel Nickolaisen

Before I could make my own conclusions, I had to do some research into what other CIOs are doing with social networking technologies in their businesses. For example, one of my good friends started a company blog. A blog? For what? As a way for employees to communicate with each other and their leadership, and to make suggestions for improvements.

My CIO peer quickly discovered that opening the blog required him to make a series of decisions about how the blog would be managed:

  • Should employee posts be anonymous? He felt yes.

  • Who would respond to questions about policy and ensure that suggestions were considered? He distributed the suggestions at executive team meetings.

  • What would happen if employees turned the blog into a gripe site? He was patient with questions like "Why does the CEO make 30 times more than I do?" Eventually, the employee community started to police itself. Six months into his blogging experiment, he feels that the blog has created value and so is ready to expand by creating departmental blogs.

At a large engineering firm, the CIO has created his own, internal version of Facebook. Engineers create and publish profiles that include their experience and expertise. With this social network in place, project teams from around the company can shop for specific skills they need to answer problems they are facing.

Suppose a team needs to perform a Wigner-Ville Transform but has no experience with such transforms. Rather than spending time to learn about what Wigner and Ville developed, the team searches the social network for engineers that can help them do the calculations. The CIO says this approach has improved project results and shortened cycle times, adding even "old-dog engineers" love the internal Facebook.

The CIO is now thinking of adding two features to the system:

  • First, a feedback system -- like seller ratings on eBay -- so people know what they are getting when they read an engineer's profile.

  • Second, a willingness factor so engineers can tell the company how willing they are to respond to requests for their expertise.

I am working on a little social networking skunkworks project of my own. My idea is to build a community for our customers. I want to provide a way for our customers to learn about best practices and tools not just from us but also from their peers. My goal is to link community and commerce. If a customer has a question, he can access a network of peers who have likely already faced and solved the problem. The commerce comes when we mine the community for new product ideas.

These all seem like very pragmatic, potentially valuable uses of social networking to improve the business. As such, I do not fear social networks because I really do want to tap into the vast brainpower that exists among our employees, my peers and our customers.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at

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