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Speed Virtual Connections, Strengthen Collaboration with the Right Social Networking Tools

Nancy Settle-Murphy

Social networking (SN) tools are opening up powerful new ways for geographically dispersed business teams to connect, communicate, collaborate and share knowledge. And because these tools foster emergence--where people and groups can naturally link together based on their common interests, skills or profiles--new virtual communities can be created with relatively little effort. The result: People can share ideas, solve problems and collaborate with people in ways they never could before, often with people they never even realized existed.

In this article, co-written with Patti Anklam of Net Work Associates, a consulting firm that helps companies keep connected for better collaboration, we explore how certain sites or types of social software tools can help virtual teams achieve a variety of worthy objectives. Here we're zeroing in on some of the most popular and proven sites used by businesspeople who need to collaborate virtually, either with those they know or those they want to know.

SN tools, such as FaceBook, can enable a greater sense of connectedness among virtual team members by adding a personal dimension to interactions. Here we'll explore how some of the most popular SN tools are being used by virtual teams.

Getting introductions. There are a number of SN sites that leverage the concept of "degrees of separation" to help people connect to people they wish to know. These services are based on the notion of profiles. You create an account, and list the companies that you've worked for, the schools you attended, or other information about yourself that you want to make public. Then, you "invite" your friends, in a similar manner to FaceBook, to be "linked" to you. LinkedIn provides a publicly accessible service. Once you've established your network on LinkedIn, you have access to the networks of the people in your network. Want to find out if anyone you know knows someone working at IBM? Try LinkedIn. You can search for people who have profiles that reference employment at IBM, and can find people you know who are connected to people who work there. It will even offer to help make an introduction to these potential contacts. Spoke and Xing are other popular such sites. A more personal, inside-the-company tool for introductions is Visible Path. This tool looks at the contacts lists of everyone in a company to create a database of who-knows-who outside the company. If you're a salesperson who wants an in at Pepsico, Visible Path will guide you to the people in your company who can connect you.

Establishing and maintaining personal connections with business colleagues. Creating a social context and building "social capital" to cultivate trust among members is much easier for virtual teams, thanks to FaceBook, MySpace or similar SN sites. With these tools, you can control who your "friends" are, who sees your profile and who is notified about your activities. People in a particular group or area of the company can set up a private group with restricted access. Team members can easily post personal and professional information to give everyone a more well-rounded sense of the real person they're working with, especially when face-to-face meetings are impossible or impractical. By sharing information about hobbies and interests, and posting photos of their families and pets, people who are not in and out of each others' offices can see what they might have in common. Some tools such as WorkLight, enable organizations to keep business information from FaceBook users in-house, requiring all the same security measures users would need to access mail or other applications internally.

Creating, sharing, and co-creating content. Like many of the social software tools, blogs and wikis began as tools to support publishing on the Internet and are making their way inhouse as ways to capture and share personal observations and knowledge. In the context of a virtual team, a blog can provide a diary or history of a project on a regular basis. A blog can reveal what issues are being handled, invite comments, summarize meeting minutes, or provide a running commentary. Personal blogs by subject matter experts can provide a way for people with similar interests to keep up with what others are working on or learning. Wikis are an easy and affordable way to collaborate and develop community websites. A wiki allows users to create, edit, and link web pages easily. Internal wikis typically require a registration, while many external wikis--most famously, Wikipedia--allow anyone to read, add and edit comments to a dynamic body of knowledge. More businesses are using Wikis as highly affordable Intranets and as a relatively easy way to set up a knowledge management system.

Keep on the edge of ideas and learning. Blogs are one way to keep up with what people are thinking, but a more focused approach is provided by the Web site del.icio.us, a social bookmarking site. Social bookmarking allows Internet users to store, organize, search, and manage Web page bookmarks. Most social bookmark services encourage users to organize their bookmarks with informal tags for remembering or sharing pages later. Virtual team members can access others' bookmarks, with permission, to greatly expand the collective repository of topical information. Feeling overwhelmed by the Web sites you want to follow, blogs and del.icio.us tags you want to track, people you want to stay in touch with and topics on which you need to stay current? That's where RSS (Really Simple Syndication) comes in. RSS allows you to subscribe to any blog, wiki, person, topic, Web site, and so on. Then, once subscribed, you are notified if someone writes a new blog entry, or if there is a change to a wiki you are participating in, or a del.icio.us topic that you've tagged as something you want to know about. What's new, current or on the cutting edge, can be delivered to you in your e-mail, on your FaceBook page, or a special subscription software site.

Orchestrating serendipity. Maintaining a personal sense of relatedness comes with a set of tools, which can be incorporated into your Facebook page, that let people know where you are, where you are going, and what you are doing "right now." Dopplr is a tool that lets you record your travels. Once you've set up a profile, you can name the people, who must be Dopplr users, you want to be able to see your itineraries. Going to visit your colleagues at the company site in Bangalore on March 30? If you put your itineraries in Dopplr, your friends can see where you will be and even see if by chance they can meet up with you there.

Staying constantly connected. At a more granular level, there is Twitter. For teams whose members want to convey frequent detailed updates of their comings and goings, Twitter may come in handy. Twitter is a free micro-blogging service that allows users to send "updates" or "tweets" (text-based posts), which are displayed on the user's profile page and instantly delivered to other users who have signed up to receive them. The sender can restrict delivery to those in his or her circle of friends. Users can receive updates via the Twitter website, instant messaging, SMS, RSS, email or through a third-party application, like Facebook.

Creating greater transparency. When work is more transparent the opportunities to offer help or work together become more plentiful. Many formal communication channels don't typically shed much light on what different people are working on at any given time-especially people who are not on our teams. Thanks to tools like instant messaging and Skype, you can find out who is available to talk to you at the moment. Such communication tools let people indicate if they're available, busy, out of the office, etc. Skype provides the ability to chat, as well as to ring up and talk using Voice over IP (VOIP). As we know about virtual teaming, the ability to create understanding grows with the bandwidth. Talking briefly can often save many emails and sidestep many confusing chat messages.

Social software tools are revolutionizing our ability to connect and collaborate, to stay aware of what others are up to, are interested in, and to find ways to share as much as we want about our own personal lives. The challenge is finding a few tools that best help you meet your objectives, putting them to the test, and then choosing the ones that deserve a place in your overall team communications plan.


About the Author
Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Go to Nancy's Web site for more information about her services, including workshops and webinars.

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