Using SharePoint as a social network platform

Social networks are growing within the enterprise, and customization is the ticket -- at least with MOSS 2007.

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With titles such as Madden NFL 10, Rock Band and Sims in its portfolio, video game developer Electronic Arts has to stay on cool's edge -- inside the company as much as out.

"When people come in the door here these days, they say, 'Hey, how do I connect with people? Do you have a social network?' " said Bert Sandie, director of technical excellence in the University Group at Electronic Arts (EA) in Vancouver. "The reality is, having a social network , search and a knowledge portal, especially in larger corporations, is essentially becoming the cost of doing business, like email was 20 years ago."

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That business imperative has many IT managers grappling with how best to implement an enterprise social network.

Microsoft has been pushing SharePoint Server 2007 as the ready answer, especially for any company already using the platform for collaboration. In early July, it launched a mini-site on how to do enterprise social networking with SharePoint.

Enterprises can build personal and team sites with SharePoint and allow blogging, podcasting, wikis; host discussion forums; and enable enterprise search, for example.

"Social networking and collaboration are converging in many ways, and I would characterize SharePoint as being a part of many organizations' social networking strategies," said Rob Koplowitz, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "But in terms of a robust social networking platform, the current version is missing some rather key functionality," he said.

Absent is depth in community sites and specialized workspaces, as well as pervasive tagging and microblogging, for example, Koplowitz said. However, Microsoft is expected to boost social networking capabilities in SharePoint Server 2010, so these and other weak spots may disappear.

For some companies, integrating pure-play enterprise social networking applications into SharePoint does the trick; other organizations finesse their enterprise social networks with lots of customization.

Chris Miller, senior director of business applications and head of internal collaboration at global consulting and technology services firm Accenture, would have it no other way. The ability to extend and customize the social networking platform was one of two primary decision points for Accenture, he said. The second was scale, given that the firm has 180,000 employees. "We knew from Day 1 that we wanted to provide all employees with personal sites, a blog platform so their voices could be heard and the ability to share and create digital content inside the enterprise," Miller said.

Using SharePoint's My Sites as a base, Miller's team established Accenture People. To the My Sites base, Accenture developers added in social bookmarking, not supported out of the box by SharePoint. It also extended the blogging and Wiki functions, customized the user interface and improved the enterprise search capabilities to help people discover end user content, for example.

 We want the social network to behave just like Google or Facebook or whatever social community people play on at home
Bert Sandie
Director of Technical ExcellenceElectronic Arts University

At EA, the SharePoint team also pumped up My Sites capabilities with customization, layering on sophisticated enterprise search capabilities and topping it off with stylized designs. "We have enough intellectual horsepower to make anything look good," said Sandie, noting that most EA employees don't realize that the social network and knowledge portal, called EA People and EA Knowledge, respectively, are Microsoft-based.

For Sandie, usability is the first and biggest concern. "We want the social network to behave just like Google or Facebook or whatever social community people play on at home," he said. "There should be no learning curve, no need for an instructions manual."

The same could be said of formal introductions. Sandie said he'd like to let word of the social network spread virally at EA -- a tactic that seems to be working well as two-thirds of the company's 9,000 employees have hit the EA People, he said.

Others like to take a more top-down approach, said Christian Finn, a director of product management at Microsoft. "But, in either case, the primary interest is being able to find the right people, be the source of knowledge and maintain relationships over time."

Beth Schultz is a freelance IT writer in Chicago. You can reach her at bschultz5824@gmail.com.

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