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Tips for Leveraging Social Computing Features in SharePoint 2010

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SharePoint 2010 includes a collection of features that allow people to work together in new ways. These "community" features are essentially how SharePoint does social computing. Susan Hanley, coauthor of Essential SharePoint 2010: Overview, Governance, and Planning, provides six key tips that should be incorporated into your social computing strategy.
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The "community" features in SharePoint 2010 address modern social networking capabilities that didn't even exist a few years ago and that we now take for granted. These features let users work together in useful new ways:

  • Create a personal profile page describing your interests, expertise, and other personal attributes.
  • Create a personal site (MySite) where you can keep track of the content, projects, and people most relevant to you—your own personal portal.
  • Create team sites to support communities of practice or communities of interest.
  • Create blogs and wiki sites.
  • Add "social" metadata—tags, notes, and ratings that provide additional context for content over and above the tags added by content owners.
  • Post status updates associated with your profile—similar to Facebook status updates.

Most organizations recognize that success depends on people working together. Social technologies allow users to interact and share information in ways that help them to work together more effectively. As more and more people embrace social technologies in their private lives, they'll expect to find this functionality in the tools they use at work.

An interesting research study by Clearswift found that one-fifth (20%) of respondents would turn down a job that didn't allow them access to social networking sites or personal email during work time. If your employees expect to be able to connect via social technologies when they're at work, it makes sense to try to leverage this desire in order to provide value to the organization.

Even if your executives are fearful of possible negative outcomes, it's important to acknowledge that your employees have technology power. So you might as well use it to your advantage by leveraging the social computing features of the products you're already using, and by providing guidelines to manage expectations—for executives and employees.

As you think about when and how to deploy SharePoint community features, consider the following key strategies, which we'll examine in detail in the remainder of this article:

  • Clearly identify the business problem.
  • Decide which features make sense for your organization.
  • Be prepared to respond to barriers.
  • Define your governance plan.
  • Define a "doable" pilot project.
  • Prepare a launch and communications plan.

Clearly Identify the Business Problem

Many of my consulting clients have initiated a conversation that starts something like this: "We need Facebook for the enterprise." This conversation starter is a great way to begin a dialogue to find out what this issue really means in each organization. In some cases, the real business problem has nothing to do with a "Facebook for the enterprise" solution, but in all cases, I push back and ask, "What business problem are you trying to solve?" The reason for this response is simple: There's only one valid reason to implement social computing technology inside your organization—you have a business problem to solve. So the first tip for anyone that wants to deploy the social computing features of SharePoint is to find out what business problem(s) these features will address.

It's not enough to say, "We need to attract the next generation of workers to our company." Sure, leveraging community features might help attract new talent to the organization, but the features still need appropriate context and organizational support. It's not the tools themselves that helps organizations to get business results; it's what the tools let users do to solve real business problems. If you're not already leveraging this type of technology in your organization, you need to approach the community features in SharePoint in the same way you would approach any other project involving an emerging technology or one that is new to your organization: You need to have a business problem to solve.

Be inclusive as you conduct the analysis to identify the core business problems for your social computing solution. By definition, solving "social" business problems involves more than one person, so it's important to get a broad perspective across the entire organization. Be sure to include perspectives from your legal, human resources, information technology, and corporate communications departments, because each of these teams has a stake in both the problem and the solution.

Every organization is unique, but social technologies can help you to address some common business problems:

  • Providing access to internal experts. In many organizations, people complain that it just takes too much time to figure out who knows about a particular topic. Expertise is often needed quickly, and even the most highly-connected people in the organization may not know whom to contact for every possible topic. User profiles and expertise searches enable people who need help in finding and connecting with the people who have the knowledge to provide help.
  • Building relationship capital. Developing the social networks that are crucial in order to be effective and productive can take new employees months or even years. Relationship capital—understanding who knows whom—is an underdeveloped asset in many organizations. SharePoint 2010 features such as the organization chart browser can help employees to understand formal relationships in the organization. Meanwhile, social "tags," ratings, and blogs can provide more informal details about relationships, so that users can figure out quickly how to get to tacit expertise distributed across the enterprise.
  • Improving connections between people and the content and processes they need to get their jobs done. Authoritative metadata improves search results significantly, but not all organizations have a good plan for assigning metadata to content. User-assigned tags (social metadata) can help to give context to content, even when authoritative metadata is available. Ratings can also help in identifying useful content, as long as you have a clear governance model for using this feature. Blogs help employees to share innovative ideas across organizational boundaries. (This feature can address a common complaint heard in very large or global organizations: "I know that other people must have addressed this issue already—I just have no clue how to find them!")
  • Increasing employee engagement. Allowing users to play a role in creating information helps to engage their interest in it. When employees can indicate which content they think has the most value and greatest relevance, they feel more ownership and accountability for content management, and they're more connected to the organization.
  • Identifying new opportunities for mentorship and sharing of knowledge. In large, geographically dispersed companies, it's difficult to match existing experts with emerging experts. User profiles, communities of practice, and blogs help people to identify opportunities for building mentoring relationships on their own. At one of the companies where I worked, we noticed an increase in retention rates for employees who were connected to others in the company by being members of an online community of practice, so there can be some significant value in enabling this capability.
  • Allowing users to add content to information repositories. When users add tags to content, they make the information more useful for themselves, but if they allow the tag to be exposed publicly, they may also make that information useful to other people, improving the relevance of search results for the entire organization. Social tagging is a very personal activity—users generally do it so that they can personally find or group information in a way that's meaningful to them. However, the added benefit of social tags is that they may help others find information also—because they improve search results, or because users may "discover" what someone else is thinking about or working on through activity feeds that show what that person is tagging.
  • Moving conversations out of the limited range of email and hallways and into online spaces where more people can benefit. A lot of tacit knowledge transfer happens in the private space of email and face-to-face conversations. Blogs, wikis, and status updates make some of these exchanges more public, helping to address the "Holy Grail" challenge of knowledge management: sharing knowledge that's not yet available in formal repositories.
  • Making it easier to recruit and retain Internet-savvy employees. I mentioned earlier that new employees may expect to have access to SharePoint community features. Simply having the functionality available doesn't guarantee that it will be used effectively. However, the availability (and active use) of social technologies can help your organization to attract and retain the next generation of employees, who are familiar with and expect to use this type of technology at work.
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