Last week IBM held a small social networking event in Cambridge, Mass. Social networks have emerged as a major force giving rise to communities of all sorts, as evidenced by the success of blogs and wikis, as well as web sites like Friendster, MySpace, Craigslist and others. At this event, we wanted to explore how social networking can help drive productivity and collaboration in the business world, and in addition demo a number of social networking tools coming out of our labs.
I hosted a panel and in my introductory remarks pointed out that social networks' impact on business is part of the "outside-in" enterprise paradigm that started around ten years ago when the IT industry first seriously embraced the Internet and WWW. The outside-in approach means that businesses, governments and other institutions build their internal infrastructures out of the same technologies and standards that are used in the open, external marketplace, which results not just in lower costs, but more important, makes it easier to integrate the activities of the business into the larger economy and society. Throughout history, every successful technology has pretty much taken this outside-in approach. For example, the telephone and electric systems used inside businesses are pretty much the same as those used outside, the only exceptions being due to extraordinary requirements.
In the invitation to the event, we quoted from the Wikipedia definition of Social Networks: " . . .[social networks] play a critical role in determining the way problems are solved, organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals." These were very much the objectives of knowledge management systems, which never achieved much success in the past because they were so cumbersome to use. I think of social networking as knowledge management done right, with the Internet essentially becoming a very effective social networking platform supporting a wide variety of tools.
The panel discussions and technology demonstrations in our Cambridge event are well described in this blog entry. Beyond that, we announced the Public Image Monitoring Solution, a software program designed with partners Nstein Technologies and Factiva to allow organizations to analyze and make sense of the information out there affecting their brand. It does so by tracking content of all sorts including blogs, and thus helps them capture the "buzz",spot trends and make better informed business decisions. There was much discussion around the idea that social networking, blogging, wikis and related technologies are part of the trend generally known as Web 2.0. Much is going on in this space, though some feel the term is now way over-hyped. Time will tell.
Regardless of what we call it, there is no question that something big is going on out there. I think this is giving rise to innovations of all sorts, some very profound, some very silly. I am also reminded of the pre-bubble days, when there was quite a bit of optimism and fun in the air before the dot com crash wiped it all out. I don't know where this is all taking us, but I am sure that it will be fascinating.