Back in the days before Facebook, no one would have ever suggested that businesses get involved with social networks. Can you imagine someone suggesting to Michael Dell that his company ought to have a MySpace page?
Today, not only does Dell Computer Company have a Facebook page but Michael Dell has one as well (we have ten mutual friends; who knew?). But this didn't happen thanks to Mark Zuckerberg's magnetic personality; it happened because enterprise users got comfortable with social networks thanks to LinkedIn. While Facebook had barely opened up beyond the student world, LinkedIn had already become a force within the business community, as illustrated by this January 2007 post by Guy Kawasaki, exhorting executives to make better use of the social networking tool.
Today, for all the talk about business uses for social media in general, and Twitter in particular, enterprises remain wary of it because of security and productivity concerns. As O'Reilly Media's Joshua Michele Ross notes,"social technologies turn many corporate policies upside down." While there are businesses that do use Twitter to broadcast themselves, most enterprises only use it to listen in on what consumers have to say about them, and that's not using Twitter to the fullest extent of its potential. What's holding those businesses back is that they worry employees might Tweet proprietary information, or communicate ideas that could land the company in legal hot water. It's not surprising that companies like Oracle are experimenting with so-called enterprise versions of Twitter (OraTweet in this case), in the hopes of creating a hybrid that offers some advantages of Twitter within an enterprise context.
The trouble with this approach is that it necessarily excludes the outside world; innovation and true communication can't be restricted to conversations behind the firewall. IBM tried turn parts of Sametime into a private IM client protected by a secure gateway, but customers still use AOL's AIM or Microsoft Messenger. Now Cisco intended to mimick aspects of Twitter using Jabber. But the walled garden of business communications is over, and an enterprise Twitter tool will be as doomed as today's boring old knowledge management portal.
That's why enterprise needs a LinkedIn for Twitter -- training wheels for microblogging that can get customers comfortable with the whole idea, and get a glimpse of the benefits of Tweeting. One could argue that Facebook has already blazed that trail, but Facebook still feels more familiar and resembles a more traditional Web site than Twitter and the generation of Twitter clients it has spawned, like TweetDeck and Twhirl. And anyone considering this idea shouldn't see themselves as just a stepping stone. LinkedIn had 7.5 million unique visitors in May 2009 and is the fifth largest social-networking site in terms of total minutes.
[Image source: Franchise Essentials]