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Business Social Networks: Leading The Way for Decades

Social networks like LinkedIn (launched in 2003), Facebook (2004) and Google + (2011) are generating all sorts of buzz and value these days, with huge numbers of users and with highly visible results, as has been seen in a number of recent political movements around the globe. And there's a sense that business and government enterprises of all sizes need to hurry up and adopt these tools.

That's good advice for business-to-consumer and government-to-consumer departments of enterprises, and social networking is certainly another powerful tool in the Unified Communications (UC) portfolio. But, surprise, in other parts of the enterprise, businesses are often already far along in social network applications.

In the area of sharing information, documents, pictures, profiles and more, enterprises have been applying social networking since the '80s. Listservs (since 1986) and shared e-mail folders were some of the earliest tools, creating very effective communities for posting, commenting, finding expertise, and collaborating. Listservs evolved in several directions:

* IBM Lotus Notes (1989) provided application level overlays for shared e-mail threads and shared folders.
* File sharing products such as Documentum (1993) advanced the facility with which large amounts of information could be posted, stored, shared and managed.
* Blogging (late ’90s) and persistent chat provided collaborative forums for groups and teams.
* Collaborative workspace products such as Microsoft SharePoint (2001) and IBM Lotus Quickr (Lotus QuickPlace in 2001) provided both the facility for personal profiles and web sites (presaging Facebook) as well as team workspaces for secure, permission-based collaboration.

All of these forms continue to advance to match current technologies. Most now support mobile workers using PCs, smartphones and tablets. Many now incorporate web advancements for ease of use in creating and managing profiles, personal sites and workspaces, including website templates, Web widgets for site enrichment, and visual drag-and-drop style Web authoring tools. And, a number are being enhanced by or integrated with social networks, such as IBM's addition of Lotus Connections, Microsoft’s social enhancements to SharePoint and Exchange, or Google’s introduction of Google+ integrated with Google Docs.

These text-based communication and collaboration tools are also being augmented with real-time communications such as integration of Microsoft Lync with SharePoint or IBM Lotus Sametime with Quickr. We are also seeing crossover into these social networking and collaboration categories from real-time communication and conferencing providers, such as Cisco's entrance through acquisition and integration of WebEx and Jabber and internal creation of Quad.

Similarly, we can see the roots of the Twitter (2006) phenomenon both in the Listserv and e-mail shared folders/group lists and blog categories (as above) and in the instant messaging and chat products of the '60s and '80s. These evolved into products such as IBM Lotus Sametime (1998) and Exchange IM (2000) followed by Live Communication Server (2003).

And don't be overwhelmed by all the growth figures touted by the public services. The Radicati Group reported 1.9 billion business e-mail users worldwide in 2009, with a forecasted growth to 2.5 billion by 2014. The number of Instant Messaging users in business may not be far behind. The number of shared workspace users is somewhat smaller, but likely in the 250+ million range.

Of course, these tools provide the security, reliability and management tools required by enterprises to match their missions and regulatory environments. Also, we now see hosted versions of these products, which address these enterprise concerns in offerings such as Lotus Live, Microsoft Office 365, and the combination of Cisco Jabber/WebEx/Quad.

The lesson from this historical perspective is that enterprises have much more experience with social networking as both communication and collaboration tools and as part of the Unified Communications landscape than it may seem on the surface. Hopefully, this experience in application and adoption can be applied just as effectively to the growth of UC in their organizations.

As a closing thought, perhaps the super-hot entrepreneurs who are cashing in big time on public social networking tools should write thank you notes to the enterprises who paved the way for them. Or not.