Web 2.0 enterprise tools are appearing, but the ROI must lead the way

Already hooked on Web 2.0, enterprise workers are seeing the benefits of professional social networking and other collaborative technology, but the true value remains elusive.

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Already hooked on Web 2.0, enterprise workers recognize the benefits of professional social networking and other collaborative technologies, but the true value remains elusive for many employers, according to a recent study by Frost & Sullivan.

Frost & Sullivan queried 1,439 users on their attitudes about Web 2.0, social networking, blogs, wikis and more and found that 54% of enterprise workers have used Web 2.0 technologies professionally, with 80% of survey respondents using the technology to connect with friends and family while at work.

How exactly that translates into a social networking return on investment (ROI) remains unclear for a number of companies, however.

"It's exciting to see enterprises at least dip their toes into social media," said Vanessa Alvarez, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan's unified communications practice.

Over half of respondents saw the possibility of using social networking to increase revenue per customer and reduce operating costs.

"But they're still kind of hesitant," Alvarez noted.

She said the businesses that fully embrace social networking and social media look back at its adoption as they do at the adoption of email: impossible to build a business case on, but impossible to live without once people are using it.

For everyone else, however, the value is less clear.

The key would be building platforms and processes that are focused on the business value and benefits that social software can bring, Alvarez said. This has been tricky because unified communications vendors, which today are helping to guide enterprise communication strategies, have been slow to adopt and integrate the technology fully.

"They don't think it's going away; they just don't know what to do with it," she said. "Meanwhile, the Web 2.0 vendors are wondering, 'Why haven't they come to us?'"

There have been a few success stories where Web 2.0 has proven its ROI quite handily.

Johnson & Johnson, for example, launched a social networking community for its top suppliers that includes updated delivery requirements, a centralized location for downloading paperwork, and a way to connect quickly with key, relevant contacts if questions come up.

"For the enterprise, it's really about adding value to the business platform," Alvarez said.

One company that is trying to do just that is PatientsLikeMe, a social networking site with niche sections for sufferers of chronic afflictions ranging from ALS and Parkinson's to HIV/AIDS.

While the immediate beneficiaries of the site are its users, who share experiences and tips on living with their condition, the business model is actually a step removed from users' actual care.

Instead of charging users or relying on advertising data, the site aggregates patient information, such as how well people respond to a given treatment or how health fluctuates over time, which is then aggregated, anonymized, and sold to third parties.

"Sites like WebMD are very advertising driven, but we're trying to create new knowledge in a very open fashion," said David Williams, head of business development for PatientsLikeMe. "Life sciences companies and pharmaceuticals and health plans ... are very interested in our data."

Alvarez said healthcare is a perfect vertical for Web 2.0 technologies, but companies will have to overcome some challenges and set reasonable expectations.

"A patient could go to an online platform, pick a physician and email them off their reviewed profile, or IM or call," she said. "Obviously, you're not going to say, without seeing someone, you've got lung cancer. And this all must be done in a secure environment."

For now, however, PatientsLikeMe is doing its best to steer clear of any activity that would fall under medical privacy regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

"The questions of privacy that you bring up, we don't want to be in any place where access or HIPAA comes into play. It's all patient-entered data and we don't port the data anywhere," Williams said. Instead, the site aggregates data the patients have entered over the course of a month and lets the users easily print it out in a form they can hand to their doctor, detailing whether symptoms and quality of life have improved or worsened, and what activities they have been engaging in.

"At some point, we will be ready to engage in those regulatory standards," Williams said, "and that would be in the interest of finding the right data for our users."

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