Employers put offices in social media pockets

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It is a manager’s problem that Henry Ford and even a young Bill Gates never had to deal with - how to maintain productivity when workers are using valuable company time to update their Facebook status or check their Twitter feeds.

A new generation of startup companies say the answer is simple: Make social media a part of employees’ daily work routines with “business social media.”

Unable to beat Facebook and Twitter, they decided to join them.

The movement came into sharp relief last month when Mr. Gates‘ Microsoft Corp. announced the $1.2 billion purchase of Yammer Inc., one of the pioneering companies of social networking for corporate use. The 4-year-old California-based company has built up a base of some 200,000 corporate customers, including Ford Motor Co., Orbitz Worldwide Inc. and 7-Eleven Inc., linking them to customers via social media.

As social media sites boom, many businesses are looking to computing clouds, “enterprise social networks” and collaborative software services to connect with customers - and speed up the tempo of activity at the office.

Long gone are the days when employees sent emails or made phone calls to check on the status of their projects, and forget about walking down the hall to thank Joe from accounting for his brilliant idea in the latest staff meeting.

New services offered by companies with names such as Basecamp, Jive Software Inc. and Box Inc. have taken concepts honed in social media - accessibility, regular status updates and seamless reply functions - and morphed them to fit the business needs of the 21st century.

Basecamp was founded in 2004 and serves 150,000 businesses while managing 8 million individual projects. Box Inc. can claim Procter & Gamble Co., Six Flags Entertainment Corp. and Pandora Media Inc. as part of its 100,000-plus clientele.

Industry leader Jive, which represents T-Mobile USA Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and the World Bank, was one of the first in the fledgling sector to go public in December. Opening at $12 a share, Jive jumped 15 percent on its first day of trading and now trades on the Nasdaq at about $20 a share.

Beyond the buzz

The fact that many Fortune 500 companies have bought into the business social media idea has refocused scrutiny on what the industry buzz is all about.

Anthony Rotolo, assistant professor at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies, credits the ability of companies “to replicate or simulate traditional social media giants like Facebook and TwitterInc. in a closed environment.”

What is posted on Facebook is owned by Facebook Inc., he noted. Such collaborative software gives businesses the control and accountability that are lacking in more traditional social media outlets.

Adam Mertz, product marketing director at Jive, said traditional office communication channels are broken, citing spam emails, ever-mounting numbers of files, and the lack of timely access to needed information. Mr. Mertz said business social media use a “people system,” something dramatically different from the “document-and-record systems” that define the status quo.

Natalie Petouhoff, instructor of UCLA’s extension social media business course for executives, said, “I don’t think regular office communication ever really worked. It’s full of politics, brown-nosing and cherry-picking talent.”

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