IT360: Social Networking for Business

I’m dropping in on a few sessions at the IT360 conference being held in Toronto this week — nice to be able to walk a conference for a change — and attended John Reid of CATA Alliance talking about the value of social networking for business. He’s a stand-in-the-audience sort of guy, and is standing about 4 feet from me, so I’m here for the duration. 🙂

He started with some pretty mainstream stats and information about social networks, such as a new blog being created every 2 seconds, then moved on to discuss the degree of risk that comes from publication and dissemination of information, starting with a bit of an obscure story about being threatened with a lawsuit for some information that he distributed in a spammy sort of fax operation several years ago up to how some companies are starting to ban Facebook access from inside the firewall.

He’s doing the presentation almost completely with audience participation; having first done an audience poll on whether we fell that social networks had high, medium or low value for business, he’s selecting people from each of the respondent categories to say why they feel the way that they do about social networking. We’re hearing about how social networks can be used to get closer to your customer, although this is dependent on the industry, the target audience and the company’s corporate culture. There’s a lot of old-school types in the audience, those who raised their hand for "low/no value"; more than one person said that they use no social networks at all, and these were people who appear to be considerably younger than me. One of them even referred to "this blogging thing" in a somewhat derisive tone. This is not, as Don Tapscott proposes, an issue of age; it’s an issue of culture and position. In fact, the most vocal supporter of social networking from the audience declared himself to be 59. There are a lot of self-declared skeptics in the audience who say that they’re going to wait and see what the value is; one person said that he could spend the 8-10 hours per week that he believes is necessary to maintain a Facebook presence; he has 70 contacts on LinkedIn but it’s never really come to anything; and he wonders what happens to all those blogs that have a lot of effort put into them but no one reads them. Get real: if you put effort into blogging about something that’s of interest to someone and put some effort into being a good citizen in the blogosphere, people will read it. This blog is proof.

The business owners who are speaking up really seem to be in command-and-control mode: one stated that they’re blocking Facebook because they’re concerned that employees will put confidential information on it; doesn’t he know that if he hires untrustworthy people, they’ll do that from their home computer, so that blocking Facebook at work doesn’t solve that problem? He also said that people will spend too much time on sites like this if they’re allowed to do so, but you have to consider that people do have to take breaks sometimes, and allowing them to read their personal email or check Facebook while they’re on a break is no different than allowing them to make a personal phone call on their break. If you have sufficient technology to block specific sites, then you likely have the ability to monitor the usage and raise flags if people appear to be abusing the privilege rather than just blocking things outright.

Keith Parsonage from Industry Canada (who is speaking later today) popped up and admitted that he can’t access Facebook or a personal email service like Gmail from his office, but that the federal government is on a campaign to hire young people. This is definitely going to come back and bite them, since people who expect to be able to access sites like Facebook and Gmail while on their break at work aren’t going to be happy in an old-school corporate environment where they’re treated like irresponsible and unprofessional children.

Reid is really trying to get to the key points of how to incorporate social networking into business in terms of outward-facing communications, such as blogs; it’s unfortunate that this turned into too much of a discussion of who does and doesn’t use Facebook, and whether they’re allowed to do so at work.

Unfortunately, there’s no free wifi at the convention centre; in fact, the only available wifi is that geared for exhibitors and priced at an extortionate $395 for access for a single computer. I grabbed a couple of 30-minutes online passes in the press room, but I’m tempted to boycott it just so that MTCC doesn’t get the conference organizer’s money for this.

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