Expect the Unexpected

Expect the Unexpected

A funny thing happened when Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu set up a social network to let former employees keep in touch with each other and the firm: People started connecting in ways the company hadn't anticipated.

Deloitte had created an alumni network to play the talent market—hiring good people back into the firm brings in proven quantities who don't have steep learning curves—and as a business development tool, since alums at other companies might be inclined to use Deloitte's services. Originally designed as a Web portal, the site attracted about 100,000 registered users, outside and within the company. This summer, using software from vendor SelectMinds, it added social networking capabilities that let users build their own networks and communities.

The expectation was that users would group themselves around their areas of business practice and expertise. They did—but they also formed social groups on single parenthood, hobbies and other personal attributes. And that, says Steve Collichio, national technology director for Deloitte Services, is a good thing. "It fits into our strategy of giving alums a reason to come to the portal, to stay connected to us—and more importantly, to connect with people and each other. It gives them a chance to organically build their own networks, and gives us chance to do community involvement with targeted events."

In addition to its alumni network, Deloitte has begun adding social networks behind its firewall, using Microsoft products to create Facebook-style environments for its employees. Deloitte's knowledge management team has been heavily involved in the conversations about social nets. Knowledge management systems costing millions or tens of millions of dollars have proved disappointing at many companies, with workers reluctant to use rule-bound software and share their hard-won expertise. "It's been a struggle to make them work," Collichio says. A key goal for social nets, he says, is to "crack the nut" of knowledge management by identifying individuals who "know everybody," and figuring out how to tap into their relationship webs.

A certain open-endedness and willingness to experiment are evident at many companies in the dawning days of enterprise social nets (see "Building the Enterprise Network," page 31). Specialized networks for, say, alumni of a school or company, retirees or women on family leave often pave the way for broader and deeper uses of the technology. Dow Chemical, another SelectMinds customer, is scheduled to launch a social net in December intended to address workforce planning issues in a tight labor market, with a focus on retirees, alumni and diversity. But even before the site goes live, Dow is finding that the uses of social networks appear "almost limitless," says Kevin Small, leader of Dow's Global Resource Management Center. Different divisions from across the enormous company are approaching him, looking for business development opportunities, marketing help, continuity across a newly reorganized European customer-service organization and so on. "They all make good sense in hindsight, but it's not what we anticipated," he says.

So far, anticipation defines this market, and expectations are high. "If companies keep social networks out, they will be doing a significant disservice to their bottom lines," Small says. "This is a natural progression, especially with the generation that's entering the workforce— connectivity and connection to the company are primary drivers for them when accepting a job. I think we will reap great benefits from going down this path, even if we don't know what they all are yet."

This article was originally published on 10-08-2007
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