Private or closed, social networks are becoming more popular as a means of collaborating online in business. Tools such as SharePoint, Confluence and Yammer all have their uses in the collaboration space. The original sites that inspired these tools have not gone away, though. Far from it, they grow stronger on the web every day. Sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn and the social giant Facebook have their own role to play in enterprise collaboration.
LinkedIn and Facebook, in particular, have a strong following in this area. LinkedIn has a growing reputation in the business world, with repeated rumors of going public and a recently launched social news service and Facebook is, of course, the undisputed king of the social network, but can it translate this success to the enterprise environment?
LinkedIn started out in 2002, and now has over 90 million members in 200 countries. It bills itself as the world's largest professional network. In essence, it allows users to build and maintain relationships with like-minded professionals. The site offers a number of different account levels:
- Basic (Free) -- Offers the lowest level of functionality to users
- Business (US$ 24.95 month) -- Builds on "basic" by offering direct emailing to other users and improved search. Also provides more stats and extended profiles
- Business Plus (US$ 49.95 month) -- Allows more direct messages and search results
- Executive (US$ 99.95 month) -- Further enhanced messaging and search and full name visibility of third-degree contacts
- Pro (US$ 499.95 month)-- The top-end account gives the full messaging service, a premium search service (with more profiles and save searches) and the maximum number of ‘"Introduction requests"
LinkedIn’s key selling point is the nature of its audience. Users are only on the site in a professional context. They are encouraged only to connect with people they have worked with or know professionally. It's quite a contrast to sites like Facebook, where people typically collect large numbers of "friends" they don’t really know.
Users can interact and collaborate in groups, both private and public. They are somewhat like normal web message boards, but tend to be much more useful as the audience has already been vetted. Conversations and debates are generally professional, and as a result, groups can be a great place to collaborate and work.
A more recent addition was the Facebook inspired "status," where you can now link to useful articles and blog posts. These links can then be "liked," and comments can be added. It is common to find interesting discussions going on right in your daily status feed.
LinkedIn is now a common place to extend enterprise collaboration. Professionals can use it privately to work together, using groups or individual connections. Alternatively, it can be used to push (by using Internet "share" buttons or similar) content out to a wider, more public audience.
Looking at the audience and demographic, Facebook is straight away a different proposition. Users tend to be younger, connections tend to be more casual and the content added and shared is less business-focused. But many do see Facebook as a business tool because of the huge number of users it commands, currently over 500 million worldwide.
This opens up a collaboration angle. Why? If you want to contact someone online, increasingly you are going to be able to find them on Facebook. So you can chat with them, in real time, and collaborate. It’s basic, but it works and the user numbers make it persuasive.
What does Facebook offer in the way of business collaboration? Well, Facebook has a large number of pages and groups promoting and advertising companies and brands. Typically this functionality is used for brands to engage with their public, rather than their employees, but forms of collaboration do take place (comments, polls, etc.). This functionality can be used within a private group if there is a need, but Facebook is positioned much more toward public communities than anything else.
Facebook has started to position itself in the collaboration space. The recent tie-in with Microsoft and Office Web Apps is evidence of this. End users can create and share online office documents using the platform, all through Facebook. It's a powerful proposition, though it's doubtful if enterprise users would make use of Office web apps this way, instead of through the flavors aimed much more squarely at them.
So, LinkedIn or Facebook?
Its clear that, right now, Linkedin is much more of a business tool than Facebook, with the right calibre of users and a sober business feel and feature set. Yet Facebook, while lacking a dedicated business feature set, has the momentum of an ever-growing user base with which to steamroll the competition.
One issue preventing Facebook's growth in this area, however, is that many users feel uncomfortable collaborating and conducting business on Facebook. They don’t want to mix their holiday snaps with their Word documents and spreadsheets. They don’t want to be friends with their boss, even if they do want to edit that sales report over the weekend together.
Facebook does offer business accounts for users who want to administer pages and groups for their business, without using a personal account. Maybe this idea of dual personalities is the way forward for the social network? A concept of separate personal and business profiles.
If Facebook offered an easy way to "clone" your existing account into a business account, then it could build up a dedicated business network to rival LinkedIn. What is certain is that Facebook is surely not going to let the business market pass them by.