Is The Corporate World Ready For Facebook, Social Networking?

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But even that's not going to stop manufacturers from touting their new products featuring social communications at the conference.

MySpace, owned by News Corp., detailed new deals at the show with Nokia and Palm, which will adapt their phones to make uploading photos or video to the social network possible with the push of one button, according to Reuters.

"This is really just the start of where we're going with this," MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe told Reuters.

The number of MySpace members reaching the network through mobile phones quadrupled in the last year to 20 million, out of 135 million unique visitors in total, and Facebook has seen a similar leap, according to Reuters. MySpace also expects most smartphone makers will include its social networking features in new devices this year, according to Reuters.

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Meanwhile, INQ's Facebook phone or Social Mobile, a spin-off of Hutchison Whampoa's 3, won handset of the year by show hosts GSM Association, and Apple, LG Electronics, Sony Ericsson, Samsung and others said they expect to incorporate similar networking features.

Even Texas Instruments is making what it calls "material" shifts in investments to give higher priority to chip products geared toward mobile social-networking content, according to Reuters.

But while the manufacturers see enormous possibilities in the consumer space, it's hard to gauge the opportunity in the commercial segment, where many companies are still wary of adopting social networking solutions for security or other reasons.

For example, Facebook and MySpace are blocked to employees at NMS Labs, a Willow Grove, Pa.-based clinical toxicology and forensic testing company, by the company's Websense filtering tool.

Joseph Tait, director of IT, NMS Labs, said employees are not clamoring to use the sites at work, which is one reason why the company hasn't moved to unblock them.

Tait himself is a heavy LinkedIn and Facebook user, but tries to keep their respective uses separate -- LinkedIn for professional relationships, Facebook for personal. It's a quandary many corporations are facing today, trying to balance how they might benefit from participating in social networking against security or legal issues that could arise.

"I did have one person who I know professionally turn down my friend request on Facebook, as he wanted to keep those friends separate from LinkedIn users. Perhaps that is prudent advice," Tait said.

Tait said he tries to stress that social networking can be damaging at a professional level and it is important to manage your online image from an early date.

"Our HR recruiting tool [Taleo] now has a structured 'Would you like to Google/Facebook search this person' button on it so the practice of searching the Web for a candidate is being built formally into the process," he said.

Although Tait sees potential opportunities through social connectivity, there's a lot of noise to filter out too, he said.

"One of my old college buddies might post a technical link and before you know it there are five responses. But then you get 'Brian is having his first cup of coffee today,' " Tait said.

Eric Vlam, IT director at Equipment Depot, a Waco, Texas-based heavy equipment sales and service dealer, said virtually all the professionals in his company use social-networking tools to reach customers and suppliers, though it's not something the company has actively promoted.

"We've had ours in place for over three years. It's been like a viral connection," Vlam said.

But like Tait, Vlam said social networking comes with a responsibility in the corporate world and must be managed appropriately.

"When you link together over social networking, they are the things that can be discussed over a beer and not through the corporate network itself. It's like an open microphone. If there are issues we'd like to discuss in a group, I like to throw them out there."

For example, if Equipment Depot is thinking of implementing a new technology, or new policy, he'll request feedback through a social networking tool, Vlam said.

"I use it as a barometer. I'll ask, 'What do you think of this?' If I get a decent response, then I'll try to begin some pre-due diligence before presenting the idea to corporate," he said.

Vlam is finishing a graduate degree in information systems and said the students regularly use social networking, a sign that the future workforce will be adept at using the technology. "Some businesses have started to put out an official Facebook site," he said. Vlam said his parent company, based in The Netherlands, and other European businesses use social-networking tools more than their U.S. counterparts. "I anticipate that changing," he said.

CIOs should at least make themselves familiar with social networking, Tait said, if only because they will be employing the Millennial Generation, for whom the technology is becoming a way of life.

"I am not looking to open up Facebook in the office yet, but if asked I would probably support it," he said. "Back when the Web was coming of age in the mid '90s, people started talking about why staff needs Web access. Won't it just give them a chance to waste time? My opinion then and now is that if someone is looking to waste time, they can do it smoking, reading the daily news or using the Web. Web 2.0 tools are just another source of content and the key is managing people properly."