(Update January 2007: Welcome, Lotusphere attendees! Thanks for stopping by and making this one of the popular Dogear'd articles at the show. Please note a greatly expanded version of this article is available as an e-Book and as an online slideshow. )
Here are the top ten (and two bonus) ways that businesses, associations and organizations can use social networking in the professional sphere. Some of these are ways to use social networking to connect with customers and members, some focus on internal organizational communication, some focus on the network as the way to find knowledge within the organization. Enjoy!
Customer and Member Relationship Development
Customer satisfaction is at an all-time low, perhaps as a result reduced business focus on actual relationships, and an increased business focus on “customer relationship management” systems emphasizing management of data rather than personal connections. Online social networks allow a prospective customer or prospective member to easily facilitate a real, human-level connection with individuals within an organization. This enables genuine business relationships to form and puts an authentic human face on the interaction, changing the external perception of an organization from a sterile, faceless behemoth into a collection of individuals who are ready to help.
Customer Support (Connecting The Customer With The Right Resource)
Successful customer support achieves a number of goals. Basic customer service includes, of course, assisting customers when they have problems or questions about an organization's products. However, online networks enable exceptional customer support that goes beyond the basics, which allows customers to connect with experts in an organization who have deep knowledge in a particular area. Similarly, a strong online network enables experts within an organization to be alerted when a problem that requires their knowledge comes into the customer support queue, and facilitates the creation of strong communities in the form of valuable user groups and member networks.
Use The Network To Find An Expert Or Locate Implicit Knowledge
Only a fraction of an organization's "knowledge" exists in databases. Another fraction exists in the form of explicit documents and reports that may be found on an organizational intranet. The vast majority of organizational knowledge, however, exists only in the heads of its members. Inside an organization, online networks with even basic profiles of its individuals' experience, location and interests can greatly reduce the time required for organizational problem-solving, through enabling faster connection between a questioner and the person who has solved similar problems in the past.
Ease Post-Acquisition Integration
Even though acquisitions are on the upswing, a majority of mergers and acquisitions fail within three years of inception. The most common cause of failure is lack of alignment and understanding between individuals in the acquiring and acquired organizations. Online social networks, giving a view to the "real" individuals within the organizations, aid in the creation of understanding between both parties by allowing members of both organizations to view each other as a collection of individuals, rather than an amorphous "them."
Provide The "Whole Product"
It is rare that a single organization can provide all the pieces needed to meet a customer's entire need. For example, even though a real estate agent aids in the process of buying a home, an entire network of other service providers, such as title company, bank, insurance agents, contractors, and others, is required in order to fully meet the customer's need. By creating a strong network of complementary providers with similar philosophies and business practices, a single service provider can provide a much greater proposition to a prospective customer than an individual working without the benefit of the network.
Understand And Visualize The Actual Communication Paths Within The Organization
While an organizational chart may show the reporting or budgeting hierarchy of an organization, the connections in an online social network create the actual flow of information for an organization. Explicitly creating a social network within the organization can help all members better understand how information gets shared and highlights the areas within the organization that are truly responsible for effecting change, turning the "company directory" into a living, breathing knowledge network.
Supercharge Meeting Facilitation And Preparation
The unfortunate part of meetings and conferences is that it always seems like you don't run into the people you really want to meet until the final day of the event, when you run into them randomly in the buffet line. A dedicated online social network created before the event enables attendees to use their time at the event more efficiently, by enabling attendees to determine who they want to connect with before they even leave home.
Increasing The Value And Extend The "Shelf Life" Of Conferences
Similar to the above point, creating an online social network of event attendees extends the "shelf life" of a conference, enabling the attendees to remain connected and take action on the items discussed at the event. This can evolve a meeting, event or conference from a "one time" occurrence into the catalyst of a community that more effectively achieves its goals.
Pull Together The "All-Star Team" That's Right For This Customer
Especially in service organizations, creating the right set of skills and culture are both key to creating a connection with a prospective customer. An internal social networking system enables the individuals responsible to creating relationships with prospects to pull together the "right" team to meet both the prospective customer's needs and, at the same time, pull together the unique group of individuals who will resonate with the prospect at a personal level as well.
By connecting an social network with basic subscription technologies (such as RSS, or "Really Simple Syndication"), an individual can easily "subscribe" to updates from customers and colleagues. This enables a straightforward way to stay abreast of the goings-on in projects of interest, as well as a way to share knowledge within an organization without additional effort. It also addresses the issue of email overload, as knowledge is pulled by those who have a need or interest for updates, rather the updates being pushed to those who may have only tangential interest in an issue.
Differentiate Your Service With Brand You
In a number of industries, the fit between customer and service provider is the differentiator. If a customer can easily identify his or her areas of commonality with a prospective service provider such as a financial planner, real estate agent or insurance provider, that customer can have some assurance that the service provider will understand the customer's point-of-view, and provide the type of service that the customer expects and supports.
Prepare For Coming Demographic Changes In Business
Although online social networks are relatively new to business, the MySpace and Facebook generation has grown up with them. By the time these individuals enter the workforce, online social networking with simply be a part of the fabric of business, and the organizations that have determined how to best integrate them into their operations will be the ones that are most successful.
See some more examples here.