Why Social Networking Can Mean Serious Business for Your Virtual Teams.
Nancy Settle-Murphy
Sunday, 20th January 2008
How can we use social networking tools to create a virtual community among those we work with?

That recent question from a client got me thinking. Many of us who work virtually tend to limit our connections to voice, email, videoconference, web forums and web meetings. For people of a certain age, these are the technologies we know best, what we're comfortable with, and what works for us. To a point.

But what would it mean to virtual teams if members could tap into popular social networking tools to deepen relationships, form meaningful connections, and relate on a whole new level? In fact, could social networking help create so much of the social capital we know is fundamental to building trust, which is so hard to do working from a distance? Faced with such a dizzying array of choices, what are some of the social networking tools most suited to virtual teams that need to collaborate to achieve real business outcomes?

To help me discover the answer, I turned to Patti Anklam of Net Work, a consultant who specializes in helping companies create effective networks. After speaking, we realized that the answer is so complex, we needed to carve out a couple of issues to get the job done.

This first part provides some guidelines for success and a framework for getting started. The next part in the series will explore how specific social networking tools can best be applied for virtual teams that are serious about getting down to business.

Use social networking sites for what they do best.

Social networking sites are designed to let ideas, groups, and connections emerge. This emergent property distinguishes them from collaboration sites like SharePoint, eRoom, and the like. With social networking sites, anyone can create a group around a topic of interest and invite "friends" into it. (In social networking parlance, a friend is anyone who joins your community of interest.

In most cases, you can limit the friends who can accept your invitation. More on that later.) Your friends can then invite their friends, and so on, enabling a community of interest or practice to flourish around a topic of shared interest. People in this emergent community now have an unprecedented opportunity to meet other like-minded people, which otherwise would be extraordinarily time-consuming, if not downright impossible.

Make sure you're clear what you want to accomplish.

Before you and your team venture into unchartered territory, consider what you really want to accomplish by using social networking tools. At the very least, you can create a kind of situational awareness that's not possible via email, phone or even web meetings.

For example, we can discover what other people are up to, interested in, or working on. Members of social networking sites can be notified when new members join or when people you know connect to other people, join special interest groups, or post information about themselves or their work. Imagine the implications for a team whose members are scattered all over the world, working against a tight timeframe, and desperately seeking others who have relevant experience and knowledge to contribute.

Or consider how more efficiently a team can communicate among its own members if they have created their own social networking site for the free-flowing exchange of project information.

Invest in needed ramp-up time.

When people use any new tool, they lose at least some working time learning how to use it. With social networking tools, people have to learn their way around features, such as creating an initial profile and then posting new information about themselves. They also need to learn how to start the process of finding and adding friends and setting parameters to include or exclude certain people or groups.

If you're serious about using social networking, make sure that people can set aside the needed time to become familiar with the application. One company is so excited about the value of social networking that they require employees to set aside a certain time each Friday to populate and explore social networking applications used for their business.

Once the initial work is done, the social network application can sit in the background, similar to an instant message program.

Reflect your team demographics when choosing the best social networking tools.

For example, some people in their 50s or older may feel discomforted at the prospect of opening themselves up to this new technology, both literally and figuratively. Many younger people, on the other hand, are adept at using social networking tools and may even see email as arcane technology best avoided.

In addition, some national cultures may have a bias for or against the use of certain social networking tools, especially if they don't trust how information will be used and with whom. The best way to sort through these questions is to have an open discussion with the team.

Find out who is already using social networking tools for their personal connections and ask them if they would be comfortable providing a demo to the rest of the team. Talk frankly about the cultural issues and develop a consensus on what boundaries need to be in place.

Set clear boundaries on the use of social networking tools.

You may be opening a Pandora's Box once you invite the team to start making social networking tools part of your everyday team communications practices. After all, meeting new friends and telling the world about yourself can be a lot of fun.

Just as your organization probably has clear policies about the use of email or internet while doing company business, you'll want to establish the same type of policies about the use of social network applications, especially if public servers are used. (If, however, a social networking application lives inside the company's firewall, then policies may have to do more with how much company time is spent on the site versus knowing who your "friends" are, since all friends are likely to work within your organization.)

Make social networking tools a key enabler to get real work done.

Perhaps because of their relative newness, or maybe it's the word "social" that conveys a certain lack of seriousness, you may need to convince certain members that social networking can actually help get work done. Agree on protocols and norms as to how and when your team will use social networking tools.

For example, decide how often people need to post certain types of information for use by the whole team. To use these tools to their best advantage, people need to update sites regularly, just as people have learned to check email regularly (in some cases, obsessively!)

Foster deeper connections with less effort.

Social networking tools make it easy to build deeper relationships among members of geographically dispersed teams. That's because members tend to have common interests, often personal as well as professional, which supersede today's work activities.

For example, upon entering a colleague's FaceBook site, I might discover that he shares my passion for fiction writing, cross-cultural communications and Thai cuisine. I may even find a picture on his wall that shows him cooking a favorite dish for his family.

Being able to create this social and visual context among members of a virtual business community can establish rapport far more quickly than emails, phone calls, and web conferences, which tend to focus on the task at hand.

Get started.

Choose an easy-to-use social networking site that can be accessed from anywhere, such as FaceBook or Linked-In. Ask people on your team if they already belong to any sites the team should consider using. Also check with your IT support professional about security issues and related policies you need to be aware of.

Start by cordoning off your team's site from others for now. Ask each virtual team member to post a consistent set of information as a start (including graphics and photos). For example: languages spoken, favorite hobbies, summary of relevant work experience, photo of your office, photo of you and your family or friends, favorite books, last vacation spot, toughest challenges you're facing with your current assignment, etc.

Give people time to navigate their way around the site. As a team, brainstorm uses for this site that may augment or replace other forms of communication. Take baby steps first before expanding the use to give people a chance to get used to this new way of collaborating.

Today's social networking tools make it easier than ever for virtual teams to collaborate. The trick is to find the tools that can help create the glue that brings team members together in ways that forge meaningful connections.

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