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Facebook's new take on communications should be embraced by business

Facebook's ability to build relationships should make it a unified communications tool of choice for forward-thinking businesses.

With more than 69 million users, Facebook is primed to become one of the most widely used unified communications platforms, particularly as the social networking site adds chat functionality this month, alongside a growing array of third-party phone and messaging apps.

Despite that enormous presence, the site is still generally off the radar when it comes to acknowledging its role in modern professional lives.

"It changes the way you can build relationships," said Rodney Rumford of Gravitational Media, a social networking consulting firm. In some ways, he said, lightweight social Facebook applications, like the word game Scrabulous, are replacing traditional venues like golf as a way to build and maintain relationships.

"I don't have nine holes to build a business relationship, but I can engage with them in micro-touch engagements," Rumford said.

Instead of banning the website as a productivity drain, enterprises might be better off evaluating how to leverage those social benefits to develop business leads, recruit new talent, and foster intra-company relationships, Rumford suggested.

Now, after a generation of what he termed single-dimensional social applications, comes a new breed of more ambitious communications tools.

One of those is Free Conference, an application developed by Iotum, which lets users organize free conference calls. Because the application is built on Facebook's backbone, it can pull in and provide a lot more information to participants: Each call has a live page where pictures of active callers are posted along with a list of invited attendees. The page can also be used to post information, to save and record conferences for later listening, and to allow a participant to request a chance to speak.

Facebook members have responded to these features, and the ease with which an impromptu call can be organized, by using the service for all sorts of unexpected applications: A contestant from the TV show The Biggest Loser organizes regular weight-loss seminars, and -- according to the company -- a group of mourners held a virtual wake where attendees could share pictures and messages online while speakers eulogized the deceased.

Iotum settled on using Facebook because it bypassed traditional channels to connect directly with end users while providing an informal, personal way to connect.

"In the world of enterprise adoption, the IT department is the last place you want to take your product to get traction," said Alec Saunders, a co-founder and CEO of Iotum. "Virtually every innovation in the last 30 years in the computing industry has entered the enterprise on the backs of end users."

Facebook, he said, simply continues that tradition of backdoor innovation, pushing forward unified communications concepts.

Rumford agreed that consumer-driven communications were pushing some radical innovations, including what he termed social rivers, which broadcast a variety of details, ranging from relevant to mundane, to friends and colleagues.

Much of this information would never previously have been sent around, he said, but because there is no expectation that any individual piece will be read and responded to, it creates a low-pressure way to share personal information and find things in common, particularly for people whom workers have met only virtually.

"I would say it changes the way you can build relationships," Rumford said.

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