Friend of a Friend

Friend of a Friend

Antony Brydon is looking for the shortest route to Bill Gates.

The cofounder of social networking company Visible Path, Brydon is demonstrating a specialized service that incorporates his firm's technology into the Hoover's corporate information database. It's a little like playing Six Degrees of Separation, with Gates as Kevin Bacon.

Brydon types "Bill Gates" onto the screen. Two names pop up, each with a numerical ranking. These are people who have relationships with Brydon and Gates, one an employee of Visible Path and the other an investor in the company. The rankings indicate the strength of their connections to the two men, determined by a set of algorithms that analyze communication patterns between individuals and companies.

Brydon knows you don't sell to Microsoft by contacting its chairman, but he's making a point about reaching individuals within a targeted business as he gives the live demo of his software. The idea is that finding people who can introduce you to the right contact for a sales or recruiting call should give you a measure of credibility, or at least access, greater than what you get from a cold call. "Companies have large, documented business networks that they have never synthesized and aggregated and made accessible to their workers," he says. "Understanding that network, and systematically managing and applying it, lets you take advantage of your relationship capital." Visible Path uses information already on tap by integrating with a host of existing business applications, including popular customer relationship management and collaboration packages from big-name vendors including Oracle and Salesforce.com. Another way to measure and understand relationships is the mapping system used by social-net company Leverage Software. The company's People Map application displays humanoid figures within a circle, identified by color-coding for job function and by distance from each other on the map to show the closeness of their relationships or interests.

Leverage allows searches via a variety of parameters, including tagging (identifying words or phrases added by users) and rating systems. The benefits, says Leverage CEO Mike Walsh, include smoother sales and research processes, as well as talent identification within a firm. "Our focus is people finding people, and finding information," he says. "It could be someone who can get something done for you, or someone who is a hero within the company, or a hidden talent." Early users of Leverage products, he says, include a large hotel chain and major technology and pharmaceutical companies. There's a host of competitive vendors and offerings in the social networking field, including products and services from small, specialized companies and line extensions from established enterprise giants including IBM and Oracle. Wachovia is building its social network on Microsoft's Office SharePoint Server, which will make information from business applications accessible to network users. "Microsoft has a relatively rich technology offering, with natural integration across different product sets," Fields says. "Desktop and productivity tools are still so Microsoft-centric that it made sense."

The elephant in the room, of course, is Facebook. The privately held company says it has no plans to introduce a behind-the-firewall product for the enterprise, although it is paying developers who come up with useful applications on their own. Many companies have thousands of employees connecting to each other of their own volition on the service. While businesses may be reluctant to put business information on a network they don't control, they still recognize Facebook as an arbiter of Web cred. Says Fields, "A bright 26-year-old MBA will be seeing the tools we offer and comparing them to what they use in their own home, and they compare well." Brydon at Visible Path sees room for interchange between Facebook networks and private-label social nets within companies. "The two could be complimentary," he says. Analyst Gotta says Facebook may be appropriate for small to midsize companies, while its community-building strength may appeal primarily to larger firms, which could federate it with software that offers enterprise-ready security and privacy, along with specialized analytic tools and other features.

For CIOs, Gotta says, "The balance between building a better community with due diligence, security, and identity is important." For users, it's a question of weighing what they use against what their employers put in front of them, meaning corporate networks have to offer something, such as security or analytics, that Facebook doesn't in order to be taken seriously.

This article was originally published on 10-08-2007
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