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In a Talkin’ to the Machine: Thoughts on Direct NetWeaver Participation in Social Computing Environments, I explored some crazy thoughts about the direct participation of NetWeaver and other systems in social computing environments.  Although I spent some time examining the issue, I have to admit that the description was a little bit futuristic and at the present time, I have difficulty making the business case for direct involvement of such NetWeaver systems in such networks as Twitter. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think these NetWeaver systems can’t play an important role in the creation of social networks.  In this blog, I’d like to discuss another perspective on the issue: the indirect use of such systems in corporate social networks.

Background – The importance of social networks in corporate settings

Before you close the browser or click to another blog, I’d like to describe why this topic is so important.  Various authors have examined the relationship of social networks and innovation in a corporate setting and have found there is a definite correlation between the two. Andrew McAffe, the researcher who coined the “Enterprise 2.0” term, discusses the importance of discovering these potential “friends” in a recent blog.

               

… there’s a still-larger set of fellow employees who could be valuable to our prototypical knowledge worker if only she knew about them. These are people who could keep her from re-inventing the wheel, answer one of her pressing questions, point her to exactly the right resource, tell her about a really good vendor, consultant, or other external partner, let her know that they were working on a similar problem and had made some encouraging progress, or do any of the other scores of good things that come from a well-functioning tie. By the same token, if our focal worker is a person of good will, there are many other people in the company she could help if her existence, work experiences, and abilities were more widely known.

Once you acknowledge the importance of these individuals in a corporate setting, the next question is how to identify these individuals.

Each one of us has relationships to others based on certain common characteristics /activities. The popular social computing sites, such as Facebook, initially establish relationships based on which schools/universities you have attended and which companies at which you have been employed. These are of course usually related to individual’s private characteristics. In a corporate setting, there are other characteristics that are more important. For example, for marketing / sales purposes, much depends on with whom who you have contact and the intensity of these relationships.

There are currently tools that search through your emails and contacts to collect information about your relationships. Visible Path is one company that provides a tool that performs such a function and is very focused on business networking and quantifying the quality of relationships.

               

Through a simple Outlook plug-in, (Visible Path) we continuously update and monitor users’ networks to determine the relationship strength between people. By measuring the strength of the relationships, we also help find new business connections by suggesting different paths of introduction based on users’ already-existing connections on Visible Path.

 

The use of NetWeaver systems to determine corporate relationships

Visible Path scans Outlook-related data sources to establish your relationships. Other social computing sites, such as Facebook, create networks based on the relationships linked to your company or past educational affiliations.  I propose using the interaction of individuals with particular corporate software systems (for example, a BI system) and the data they contain as means to discover such relationships.

Usually large companies have a number of users who have some sort of a relationship (described as “friend” in the diagrams below) to a particular system or to other users of such systems. Thus, individuals have some commonality based on their interactions with IT entities.  Of course, the intensity of the relationship varies. A relationship between two individuals who are both BI users may be less intensive than that of two individuals who work with the same customer.

For example, two individuals in a large corporation (a BI Analyst and a Process Expert) may both use the same central BI System.  Thus, they are both “friends” with the same NetWeaver system.  Thus, there is the ability that they have a relationship with each other based on their common BI system usage.

OK, you might think that just because a user has access to a system doesn’t mean that he could be associated in a social network with other users of the system. This relationship might be too broad to be really useful. This is similar in Facebook where the user is asked to provide information on which high school or college he went to. If you have a large high school with 2000 students, there is no certainty that two students know (or knew) each other. In a corporate setting, a similar metaphor exists; a similar usage of a system might create a very weak tie that is almost useless.  What might be more useful may be a common usage of a particular transaction in a system.

Let’s step into the system internals, in particular, the data that is accessed in these systems. Just like Visible Path looks at which contacts a user has in Outlook, it is useful to look at which information a user accesses in these systems. A BI Analyst in one division might access a dashboard dealing with sales of a particular product including those units sold to Customer X. A Process Expert in another division might be working on improving the procurement process which involves Customer X. In our scenario, these two individuals have no direct contact with one another.  The systems in which they primarily work also have no relationship with one another. However, the establishment of a relationship / a friendship between the BI System and the CRM with a resulting exchange of information about Customer X might be beneficial for each by providing new insights into the customer. Instead of “customer” association, association via common product or process usage would also be possible.

Of course, the collection / processing of this information on various relations / friendships would be an amazing endeavor itself. Thus, the realization of such projects will definitely be for future generations.

Conclusion: Context-Sensitive Processes

Context-sensitive processes are one possibility of using these social networks. By context sensitive, I mean that the process responds differently depending on the relationships in which I am part of. Currently, processes already respond in some way to my permissions and the roles that I have in an organization.  However, I think that what / who an individual is – irregardless of whether in a private or corporate setting – is based on the relationships in which they are involved. It is the multitude of these relationships – in all their complexity – that should be exploited to improve how individuals function in the corporate setting.  

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  1. Ken Kirby
    Great blog post Richard,
    I can’t help but think about FOAF in this context. An extensible approach to capturing all the miriad possible relationships would be necessary and this totally comes back to the Semantic Web.
    To add data from Visible Path to data from Facebook to data from MSProject to data from “Who Queries What” makes great sense – and I think using Semantic Web technology would be a natural fit.
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