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UC pros lukewarm to social media plug-ins for collaboration platforms

Unified communications (UC) professionals aren't yet sold on the recent push from vendors to use social media plug-ins that embed consumer social networking feeds into UC and collaboration platforms.

Successful corporate marketing campaigns through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have helped validate business-to-consumer (B2C) social networking. But unified communications (UC) professionals aren't swayed by the recent push from vendors to embed consumer social networking feeds into enterprise UC and collaboration platforms with social media plug-ins.

"We are trying to figure out how those apps are being used for business purposes and how many people are just going to Farmville," said Michael Bialas, senior ITS administrator for a large Texas energy company, which he declined to identify. "We don't have any defined business processes that require Twitter or Facebook. That's in nobody's job description."

The latest version of Microsoft Outlook, released this week, offers new social media plug-ins that integrate users' Facebook, MySpace and Windows Live Messenger accounts into the application. The plug-in feature, Outlook Social Connector, originally launched last year with LinkedIn integration.

Siemens Enterprise Communications also recently released a package of social media plug-ins for its OpenScape UC and collaboration platform. One plug-in embeds a user's Twitter feeds, populated with corporate contacts, directly into the desktop communications portal; from the Twitter feed, users can see a colleague's presence, initiate a Web conference or click to call.

Bialas, who oversees instant messaging (IM), audio and visual systems, video conferencing and Web collaboration at his energy company, said Facebook accounted for seventh place in session counts on his network and 21st in terms of bandwidth. But with the exception of some select users, such as international groups, few use the site as a means for team-building and internal communications.

"Based on the management attitude toward social sites, I can't imagine we'll get a lot of interest in saying, 'Let's enable that Facebook plug-in for Outlook,'" he said.

A Yankee Group study commissioned by Siemens offers an alternative view, arguing that legacy UC technologies are being held back by their disconnect from consumer social media.

In the report, Yankee analysts Sheryl Kingstone and Zeus Kerravala conclude that traditional UC technologies focus too much on internal communications, coming up short as enterprises increasingly bring partners and clients into business processes.

"Workers today communicate regularly with individuals from other organizations … [and] this is why many workers turn to consumer-focused social media tools to augment their collaboration tools," they wrote. "Many workers, though, will defer to a single set of tools and will actually prefer the consumer-focused tools between the internal and external audience."

No love for social media plug-ins 'invading' collaboration platforms

Rob Klan, intranet supervisor at Reed Smith LLP, a Pittsburgh-based law firm with nearly 1,600 lawyers in 22 offices around the world, doubted that the legal industry would see much use for embedding social media plug-ins into UC and collaboration platforms for internal use.

[Our users] love Outlook, so that's OK ... but invading Outlook with a bunch of plug-ins, icons and things like that? I think it might be overwhelming and probably overkill.

Rob Klan
Intranet Supervisor
Reed Smith LLP

Lawyers work in very specialized niches and don't require much for collaboration outside of a physical or virtual conference room, Klan said, adding that the industry is also conservative about adopting new technology.

"I think they would be really slow to pick up on that," he said. "They love Outlook, so that's OK -- we're good there -- but invading Outlook with a bunch of plug-ins, icons and things like that? I think it might be overwhelming and probably overkill."

IT and knowledge management pros have to be careful not to be wooed by a cutting-edge UC or collaborative tool that offers no business use case to their users, he said.

"We tend to want to flood our systems with the latest and greatest technology, and this would be an example of that," Klan said. "I still think no one knows how to measure the success of [enterprise social networking] because there are so many moving parts. How can you put a price tag on relationships that might be built on it? But from a business perspective, you need to be able to measure the success."

Enterprises still seeking social tools for collaboration platforms

Instead of embedding consumer sites into collaboration platforms, UC pros say they are looking for stronger enterprise social software offerings from their vendors.

Bialas said he would like to see tools that could perform tasks such as using a corporate directory to find internal experts or leaders from within an IM client.

"We actually use a visual directory. I can type in somebody's name and I get a picture -- it tells me who their boss is, and they have a limited character field to tell me what their interests are, but that doesn't give us a lot," Bialas said. "They can see on my profile that I'm an avid cyclist … and that might be interesting, but it's not going to get them their work done."

Klan said he believed the strongest case for social media at Reed Smith would be a more outward-facing application, such as one that could identify potential clients through consumer social networking sites, based on the lawyer's specialty, location and billing rates.

"There's some interesting opportunities there," he said, "although [I think] it's going to need to be really matured before … it becomes really significant in the law firm world."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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