Most Companies Can't Afford GE's Custom Approach to Social Networking


Sure, General Electric's internal social network is nifty, you may think, as you read my post from earlier today about it. But is it really worthy of the kinds of superlatives thrown around by folks like EMC's Chuck Willis, who heaps a heavy dose of praise on GE in his A Journey to Social Media post?


It's so advanced, writes Willis, that "I'm not sure -- even now -- that I fully understand all of it." The company "successfully rewired (its) corporate DNA to function very effectively as a social computer." GE employees use "features that many of us could only dream about." His conclusion: "I've been humbled -- in a great and wonderful way. And I've got a few things to think about."


Willis mentions that GE is a client of EMC's, so you might suspect he's laying it on a little thick. But when you consider the tentative or floundering efforts of other companies to leverage social networking, GE's accomplishment truly appears light years ahead of what anyone else is doing.


IBM, which is often cast as a Web 2.0 darling, arguably has more employees connected to outside social networks like LinkedIn than to its own Lotus Connections social software, says Antony Brydon, a founder of Visible Path, a corporate social networking startup now owned by Hoover's, who spoke at the recent Social Networking Conference in San Francisco.


It's still too early to tell whether existing networks like Facebook or solutions from companies like IBM and Microsoft will emerge as the social networking choice for the majority of companies, says Brydon in an InfoWorld story about a panel presentation featuring Brydon and other experts. He sees a possible parallel with instant messaging, where consumer-class products such as AOL's are more popular in the enterprise than those designed specifically for business use.


Many of the enterprise-class tools still lack the kinds of functionality companies are seeking. Notably, few tools are equipped for both collaboration and social networking, says CMS Watch founder Tony Byrne, whom I interviewed earlier this month. Not to pick on IBM, but Byrne used the company to illustrate his point. Its Connections software is networking-oriented with a bit of collaboration capability thrown in, says Byrne. Quickr, on the other hand, is well suited for collaboration but offers limited networking functionality. He says:

So at a certain point, through the evolution of these things, you're probably going to want to take a thing that germinated in Connections and put it into Quickr to formalize it. Yet the whole point of Enterprise 2.0 is, "Let's keep the discussion going." But at that point, you're back in Connections.

So how did GE do it? Build its network, I mean. Technical details are scarce in both Willis' post and another item, by ZDNet's Oliver Marks, but apparently the company built the network from scratch. (It almost had to, considering the fact that it started this project back in 2000, when Facebook was little more than a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg's eye.) According to Marks, the system was created by GE engineers, who use Agile development methods to update its software twice monthly. And the network apparently runs on a custom-built cloud, which is more cost-effective than Amazon's S3. Willis mentions that GE "invested early and continuously" in the system, a necessity in instances when only custom software will do.


Relatively few companies can spend as much GE on social networking -- or other initiatives, for that matter. But these kinds of costly custom efforts tend to help vendors figure out how to offer more affordable solutions for the rest of us.