INSIDE THE FIREWALL – Working the Crowd


Businesses may not yet be using social media in a structured way, but with the groundswell of adoption, especially amongst the Generation Y and Z crowd, the use of social tools in a business setting will become more and more widespread.


Generation Y are your future managers, executives and engineers, and their adoption of social networking methods for communication and collaboration will shape the next generation of communications platforms products and services. These people are ‘prosumers‘; they use social media, networks and any tool at their disposal to effectively and efficiently do their job.

This has a huge and far reaching impact on business. Industries that embrace this new world of work are enjoying success—look at how Dell have benefited by being agile in this area. Ultimately, for your business success, you need to be there too. There are huge opportunities created by word of mouth networks, and smart businesses see the need to collaborate in these areas where there are opportunities for marketing your products and brands. Collaboration inside the firewall is just one part of social networking.

Collaboration enables companies to exchange intellectual capital with colleagues inside of their company.

Corporations invest huge amounts of money in storage systems to store corporate data—but as soon as a file is stored on the corporate network, the data effectively dies. With poor enterprise search tools, this dead data is no longer a corporate asset; users spend more and more time trying to find the documents they need amongst the ever growing mass of data.

If you implement a system that enables effective and contextual search to discover the data, use meta-information to tag the content appropriately and add multi-user editing and version control, things change. This data becomes discoverable, updatable and, more importantly, alive. And it’s the living data that becomes a strategic asset to a company and enables corporate agility.

Having live up-to-date documents instead of terabytes of archives can reduce the need for storing duplicate data. Your new, modified versions of the original documents are used from the document store, and document versioning keep the original version intact.

The term ‘social media‘ conjures up images of tools like Twitter and Facebook and brings to mind their use and misuse on the Internet. Often companies are wary of opening ports to allow the use of social software inside the firewall because of the potential risks that it may bring. Companies either ban sites through use of firewall block lists, or they monitor usage through audit trails and policies. Restricting your staff from using these sites will drive them to communicate with their friends from their mobile devices, or use other WiFi networks to access the sites in their lunch breaks. But social networking applications can also be used to enhance efficiency and productivity inside companies. In this context it tends to be known by a different name: social computing.

Social computing: the new productivity

With the growing use of social computing within companies, users are starting to reap the benefits of enhanced productivity. If a company has implemented a productivity suite with a unified mechanism for collaboration then it can start to communicate in real time. If it has installed an application that can display a list of colleagues and show whether they are online, away from their desk or on the phone, then this information can also be embedded into other applications to provide dynamic information around the company. Staff can easily communicate with their colleagues using instant messaging without the need for email and the associated disk space. If they use and manage dynamic websites instead of static pages, they can take advantage of the knowledge capital that the business already has and keep their data alive. Collaboration offers significant value to companies, but without the dynamism offered by socially connecting, exchanging information and chatting with your friends, collaboration can only give value in one aspect of business life.

Social computing doesn’t necessarily mean embracing Facebook, Twitter and MySpace inside the firewall. It’s about using the collaboration tools you have in a new way. Using wikis for group work, or changing your intranet pages to wikis instead of static web pages, means that as data changes at the company, updating the system involves only a small amount of work. Adding document versioning and meta-information to your documents means that information can be discovered in a new way. Instead of searching for ’consultancy proposal for NHS’, for example, you can search for ’NHS Surrey project management 2010’ or ’server refresh Surrey hospitals’. This richer meta-information allows for more targeted searches and more relevant results which ultimately improve productivity.

Searching for information

The average user in a large company can spend up to 10% of their time searching for documents on the intranet, so implementing social computing can soon improve productivity. Adding presence information to the document repository and landing pages means that document authors can be contacted immediately to clarify any queries. Status updates and out of office messages can bring richness to intranet sites and encourage greater interaction.

In the short term, this new way of working does require a shift in behaviour. Think about how your team interacts at the moment. You might email documents around for review by the team, which can often cause bandwidth and mailbox issues if you send large files. You might call your team on the phone, leaving voicemails, and then email them to follow up on your voicemail. You might have a set of file shares on the server where all of your project documentation is stored. Think about how much more productive you could be if you could only change the way the team works.

This shift in behaviour could lead to everyone in the team storing their documents in a dynamic way on the document management system. You could use instant messaging with presence information to see whether the person you want to talk to is at their desk. You could then start a conversation by instant message, switching to voice and adding video. You could work on the same document and save a copy of the amended document. You could collaborate with wikis and you could have information updated quickly by members of the team. In the long term, this behaviour will reap benefits to both the information workers and the company through increased productivity and efficiency. Businesses sometimes flinch when they contemplate allowing the use of these tools behind the corporate firewall, but a quick analysis of access logs shows that over 80% of web visits are to social sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Collaborating with your colleagues

The desire to communicate with colleagues and friends both inside and outside the firewall will set the direction for the organisation’s social strategy. Tools can be incorporated as part of a bottom-up approach to implementing new working practices instead of the current top-down approach to information dissemination. You might consider having an email group that is used for social activities. These social activities could be notices about items to sell, company events, ’how do I?’ type emails, and the group could soon grow to become a central repository of information. Microsoft in the UK has an email group for its campus staff. Over half the staff in the UK subscribe to the mailing list, it is policed by its members and it covers topics as diverse as warning drivers about traffic hold-ups on the M4, and advice to people not to go too close to the pond as the resident geese have hatched their new brood of chicks. It also acts as the pulse of the company staff to gauge mood and sentiment about any new initiative or idea that is introduced onto campus.

Companies that decentralise the passing of information like this become a community of individuals sharing and contributing to corporate knowledge. This leads to an enhancement of corporate intellectual property and an increase in connectedness of the silos of information stored across the company. Companies that adopt this approach are inherently more agile than companies that rigidly maintain the top-down approach.

The groundswell of the bottom-up way of adopting social tools inside the agile business keeps companies at the forefront of competitive information and gives them the ability to move quickly if the business needs to.

There are various catch-all names for social applications inside the firewall, from collaboration tools to contact managers, portals to productivity applications. Having information about your users embedded within these applications enhances the user experience and makes the collaboration site more engaging. Document versioning keeps track of multi-user edits, wikis provide up-to-date web pages and data points, and a good enterprise search solution keeps data alive. There are inbox rules to control the messages that flow into your mailbox, alerts to control changes to your documents, and status changes to control who can view your online presence; there are also ways to harness social computing tools. Using collaborative software will make your work inside the firewall more productive and effective, and users will not feel restricted. Capturing those chats around the coffee machine and harnessing them appropriately can spark the next business advantage you otherwise may have missed. You can transform your dated intranet to something that teams actually want to use.

Using the internal web

Intranets have been around for a while. They are generally searchable. They are repositories of data that contain historical documentation, facts and perhaps an organisation-wide telephone directory. Occasionally there may be a web page that contains news articles, social events and items to sell.

But there’s so much more you can do with an intranet. Think of how you could improve it if you had a social computing platform for collaboration and customised it well. NASA is developing an intranet site called Spacebook.50 The site will be useful for staff wanting to find out what’s going on and engage with their colleagues, with real-time status updates, announcements and people search.

Sites like these appear to have all of the prerequisites for an engaging site. Staff need the ability to search for people and groups with similar skills, interests and job functions; the ability to capture status updates from colleagues on your friend list; the ability to add meta-information to documents so that popular documents about the topics you care about bubble up to the top of the intranet page. Furthermore, information about where your colleagues are right now means you can directly connect and interact with others in the team, group or organisation.

Keeping your data alive

Having a clear, simple to use site that is engaging and updated regularly is key to successful engagement inside the firewall. Collaboration suites such as Lotusc Notes and Microsoft SharePoint are frameworks that can be installed out of the box to give a simple collaboration site, or they can be extensively customised with add-ons and scripting. This customisation provides the collaborative and engaging environment that your business requires and can, with the appropriate addon software packages, turn an out of the box product into something that even NASA could be proud of. That can be the key to successful collaboration. If you build an effective interactive engagement network you will ensure that your staff will visit the site. The intranet site contains fresh and updated data and employees will regularly want to return to the site for their information. This keeps your data alive and turns the information into a strategic asset for the business, not terabytes of dead data taking up storage space in your data centre.