Social networking grew up around the need for predetermined collaboration, connecting people who want to get ahead in their careers or simply linking people according to their workflow and profiles. But it's time to move on.
This approach may enable efficient collaboration, but these benefits also offer diminishing returns. As "How to Build Your Network," a December 2005 article in the Harvard Business Review, points out, people tend to choose their network contacts from people who resemble them in terms of experience, training, and worldview. However, the report continues, "too much similarity restricts your access to discrepant information, which is both crucial to creativity and problem solving."
Over time, people tend to introduce their contacts to one another so that everyone becomes friends. It makes for less friction, but the approach is also fatally flawed. The network may become too inbred, creating an inferior gene pool of ideas. People may link, but their thoughts and skills do not multiply. A powerful social network must lead the collective wisdom well off the beaten path.
Jigsaw Data Corp.
Tacit Software, Inc.
Sidebar: A-Prox-imating Social Interactions
Sitting next to an expert in an airport lounge or bumping into a speaker at a conference is a happy coincidence that can pay dividends. But imagine the results if business professionals could systematically leverage intellectual proximity, physical proximity, and time of day to connect with people who share their interests and business goals by using a mobile device when and where the opportunity presents itself.
This is the vision of Proxpro, a provider of mobile search and proximity social networking tools. The company, which has developed a matchmaking service for this purpose, effectively empowers professionals to find and meet people who matter. Its patented technology and algorithms discover people nearby who match pre-specified interests. The service then sends a text message to both and, if both agree, a face-to-face meeting can take place within minutes.
In June, Proxpro enhanced its social networking capabilities by partnering with Zoom Information, the company behind ZoomInfo, a B2B search engine that continually scans the web to create individual summaries of people and companies. Proxpro's new Research People product enables business professionals on Sprint and Cingular networks to access employment histories, bios, and photographs from ZoomInfo's B2B search engine by inputting a person's name. The product is slated to launch in the U.K. shortly.
"People can take advantage of chance meetings with immediate access to invaluable relationship-building information," according to Julian Bourne, Proxpro CEO and founder.
Researching people is useful, but that's only the first step, Bourne says. Inspired by the energy and idea flow during the World Economic Forum, Bourne's ambitions revolve around "coordinating human capital." In his view, bringing people together on the basis of what they know can have a "hugely important impact on thinking."
To make sure this dream becomes a reality—at least in Boston—Proxpro is working closely with the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative, an organization dedicated to supporting and sustaining the region's history and culture of innovation, and Synectics, a consultancy that specializes in facilitating creativity and innovation.
The goal is to harness personal mobility, and infrastructure such as Wi-Fi, to enable business professionals to "bump and connect" with people who matter, on-the-fly. It's important that the result is an exchange of ideas and perspectives that can either result in new ideas or further the development of existing ones, says Elisa O'Donnell, a principal at Synectics. To date, her work centers on technology and practices that can support better social networking. Proxpro brings "bump and connect" out into the streets and enables chance meetings on-the-fly that can spark creativity and innovation, she says.
"We can't just have people bumping and connecting with organizations that are like themselves," O'Donnell says. "Those connections are important, but that's only one type of ‘bump and connect.' We want people to ‘bump and connect' in a more random way, so they get exposure to more diverse ideas and perspectives."
Sidebar: Social Work
Social networking can do more than just connect individuals; it can allow companies to build brand loyalty, retain customers, and increase revenues by creating online spaces for stakeholders, including customers, partners, and consumers. No wonder an increasing number of companies are integrating social networking tools and concepts into their websites and encouraging the growth of communities.
Indeed, social networking tools are poised to be the next website must-have features, alongside message boards, blogs, and photo albums. These tools not only promote the growth of communities and allow members to build relationships around common interests but also allow companies to capture valuable marketing information about customers, products, and competitors.
"Social networking and online communities are increasingly becoming a part of the customer marketing and service strategy," observes Michael Krieg, VP of sales and marketing at WebCrossing, a provider of tools that power virtual communities and collaboration. To allow companies to grow and deepen their ties with online communities, WebCrossing has introduced WebCrossing Neighbors, a private-label online social network solution.
With it, organizations can create customized, branded online social networks where members can link their personal spaces and share content. Organizations can also exercise control over the look and feel of the environment to build and protect their brand identity.
CarSpace, an online community for automotive enthusiasts and a WebCrossing customer, is using the package to go beyond the message boards it currently offers, to provide members of its online community with a full-scale social networking environment. "For us, a social network is kind of that next evolutionary phase of online communities," says Sylvia Marino, CarSpace's senior director.
Another development likely to drive the spread and influence of social networks is the advance of empowered consumers demanding to interact with companies on their terms. "People will use it to connect with products and then connect with each other," Krieg says. "Openness and diversity is always good for a network. It's a combination that encourages new ideas and content, and allows the best of both to bubble up to the top."