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Enterprise social networking tools yield collaboration benefits

Enterprise social networking tools have enhanced collaboration and internal communication -- even in industries that handle sensitive information.

It seems as though every organization is jumping on the enterprise social networking software bandwagon, intent on increasing communication and collaboration within a company.

In a recent IDC survey, 79% of the 700 responding companies said that they currently used one or more internal social networking tools.

But for some organizations, adopting enterprise social networking (ESN) isn’t so easy. Those that are constrained by regulatory and privacy issues, such as hospitals and legal services, have more difficulty determining how to employ the benefits of social networking while minimizing the inherent risks.

Enterprise social networking software help employees divided by geography or department share information or best practices; identify subject matter experts, decreasing the time spent trying to get answers; and increase work efficiency.

But some companies are concerned that disseminating sensitive information on an enterprise social network can put them or their clients at risk. This concern is understandable, particularly when the information could involve a patient's health details or legal actions. Although more conservative industries are slow to adopt enterprise social tools, some companies within these industries are feeling their way, figuring out how to use social tools beneficially while limiting unwanted exposure.

Enterprise social networking tools: Balancing benefits and risks

Community can really be powerful in health care.
Dan GoldmanMayo Clinic legal counsel

In 2005, the Mayo Clinic began a quest to improve health care globally, through social media, forming the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media. The social media center brings together communities of patients and health professionals, particularly for those affected by rare diseases, said Dan Goldman, Mayo Clinic legal counsel and member of the Internal Advisory Board for Mayo Clinic's Center for Social Media. "Community can really be powerful in health care," he said.

Soon, the Mayo Clinic began implementing internal social networking as well, using Yammer to help organize conversations, therefore de-cluttering mailboxes and keeping documents, such as those in a project-approval process, together so everyone involved can track progress, Goldman said.

Other hospitals are following suit. Two years ago, leaders at Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford, Conn., implemented enterprise social networking tools, said Kristen Durocher, manager of internal communications.

"We had conducted an employee survey, and one of the items that we felt we needed to improve upon was employee communication," Durocher said.

Employees now can receive hospital information and event listings in a timely manner and share project information, Durocher said, adding that she hopes the use expands. "We're really looking to increase collaboration within and across departments by using different forms of communication to work with each other in a more streamlined manner."

So far, both the Mayo Clinic and Saint Francis use their social networking systems to convey organizational information, but not patient information.

"When we first launched Yammer, protecting patient privacy was our first priority," Durocher said. "We created a terms-of-use policy that specifically addressed the sharing of patient information. I don't foresee us changing this policy in the future."

In both hospitals, carving out the information that could and could not be shared was the key to implementing the social networking tools.

While hospitals, for example, cannot put Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (or HIPAA) information on an ESN, they can make blogs, educative marketing and generic information available, said Andrew Walls, research vice president at Gartner Inc. "An increased number of vendors will enable [organizations] to sift through content to maintain control over what can and cannot be published online."

Hospitals are not the only organizations wrestling with what information can be shared via internal social tools, said Kevin O'Keefe, CEO and publisher of LexBlog, a blogging service for lawyers. "Firms are feeling out what to do," O'Keefe said. "Leaders within organizations are realizing the shared knowledge gained by using social tools." As for privacy issues, O'Keefe acknowledged that they exist, but also warned that that concern is not a reason to avoid implementing an ESN. "You're more at risk having a laptop that is stolen out of your trunk," O'Keefe said, than having private client information go public.

Still, those companies that have made a foray into enterprise social networking say that implementing an ESN where privacy is paramount requires thorough training so employees understand the nuances of what information can and cannot be shared.

But most of all, these companies say that the collaborative benefits of internal social tools cannot be ignored. As Goldman explained, companies have to be willing to take risks to grow and remain relevant.

About the author:
Pamela DeLoatch covers B2B and technology issues. She has written articles, profiles and case studies for numerous organizations.

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