Let's get linked: Social networks gaining foothold

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It happened the other day for editor Karen Mracek. As she was checking her e-mail, she found an invitation from her boss to be Linked together.

LinkedIn is like MySpace for 13 million professionals, and as it's made its way into Mracek's workplace - she's assistant business editor at the Des Moines Register - other businesses are beginning to look at social networking as an opportunity rather than a time-waster.

Nathan Wright of Des Moines, who helps businesses capture the power of Web 2.0, told the newspaper that companies can use social networks to encourage collaboration and form communities. The online get-togethers can be managed and stored for future use. Plus, networks can actually improve productivity by cutting down on e-mail.

While there's no question that social networking can bring people together, pitfalls abound, Information Week noted. Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn can become a source of privacy violations or other breaches of company rules. Forrester Research recently found that 14 percent of companies have disciplined employees and 5 percent have fired them for social networking offenses.

Financial institutions such as Citigroup and Lehman Brothers block employee access to those public social networks altogether. In an online survey in July of 600 workers by security firm Sophos PLC, 50 percent said their companies block access to Facebook, according to Information Week.

Business owners who are interested in using in-house social networks can avoid problems by monitoring and managing access to encourage business collaboration and discourage the frivolous, not to mention anything illegal. Accounting firms must keep tabs on their employees, to make sure no tax or accounting advice flows through their networks, for example.

At KPMG, social networking helps with recruitment and retention. KPMG says its alumni network of 10,000 people helped it hire 137 former employees. That's around 14 percent of the company's total hires since the service started, BusinessWeek reported.

Facebook, with more than 40 million users, is no longer the domain of teenagers and 20-somethings. BusinessWeek reported that 11,000 workers at Ernst & Young alone have Facebook accounts.

Rob Carter, executive vice president and CIO of FedEx, said at a Society for Information Management conference last week that like it or not, these networks and other innovations are changing the way workers look at connectedness and networking, breaking apart the idea "that community is defined by face-to-face interactions."

Starcom MediaVest Group launched its own internal network last spring, with a little more than a third of the company's 2,060 work force signing up for their own pages. Starcom Vice-President Pam Daniels told BusinessWeek: "Giving our employees a way to connect over the Internet around the globe made sense-because they're just doing it anyway."

Jerald Jellison, a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and an expert in change management and social relations, told Reuters that companies should embrace networking.

"People who lead businesses are reluctant to acknowledge the extent to which hard-working professionals do other things besides strictly working", he said. "We're human beings. We socialize. It's going to go on whether you allow it or not."


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