This does not mean that companies are encouraging their employees to browse Facebook on company time. Instead, companies are recognizing the benefits of social networking communication for productivity.
Imagine a project being undertaken across multiple departments in multiple locations. Even as recently as two years ago, management of such a project would entail daily emails (with ever-lengthening threads) and the occasional face-to-face meeting, punctuated by weekly conference calls.
Now imagine the same project with social tools being used. Now statuses can be updated automatically, as employees work on various aspects of the project. Questions can be fired off to the group either as Twitter-like, one-off queries, or posted in a more robust forum setting. Emails, calls and meetings are still used, but their prominence is downplayed, with fewer interruptions on the work being done.
More effective, streamlined communication is the promise that social networking tools can deliver, if implemented correctly. And that, for now, is the real trick.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal highlights the problem very succinctly: Companies want to take advantage of social enterprise tools, but like most early adopters, they are finding themselves working with a confusion of tools that don't always scale well. According to the article:
Charles Beard, chief information officer at defense contractor SAIC Inc. and other CIOs said while the [social enterprise] software offers benefits, it also poses some hurdles. Social enterprise software is sold through a hodgepodge of approaches, and prices for the software vary depending on the delivery model and how many employees at a company use the application.
This scattered approach is perpetuated by a market full of social newcomers. Microsoft, with the release of SharePoint 2010, for instance, has made a great deal about the collaborative server's social media tools, though these tools are nascent in implementation and don't integrate with third-party services very well. It has not stopped Redmond's marketing department from touting the feature anyway.
Of course, there are many good social networking services out there that would do much better than the internal tools offered by Microsoft, IBM, SalesForce.com or Jive Software -- all firms highlighted in the WSJ article -- after all, why emulate Facebook when you can just use Facebook? But many companies are extremely reluctant to use such services directly for internal purposes, primarily for security reasons.
Smoother integration is what is needed, and some software companies are on a trajectory to meet that need. Open-Xchange, for instance, makes a point to integrate social networking and more traditional enterprise messaging services on a single interface, using its Social OX interface. This functionality is geared specifically to deliver a consolidated solution for social enterprise customers.