As more and more corporate workers use their favorite social networking tools for job-related tasks, IT executives are left with little choice but to quickly find ways to manage the consumer software.
The number of social network users is huge and still growing: Facebook claims some 850 million members around the world; Twitter is said to have 140 million-plus active users; and Google said in January that its Google+ social network had reached 90 million people less than a year after its launch.
Over the past year or so, corporate employees have increasingly used texting tools and Twitter microblogs to communicate with co-workers and business partners, and they've used Facebook and the Foursquare mobile social network to keep colleagues updated on their whereabouts during business travel.
"There's a [social] experience that our customers are having in their personal lives, and they're increasingly impatient to see it reflected in the way they work," said Peter Hirst, executive director of executive education at MIT's Sloan School of Management.
The school has launched a pilot collaboration program using the AvayaLive Engage platform from Avaya.
Other IT executives have also taken notice of the trend, and many are hard at work finding and implementing ways to control the technology and how it's used.
"It's pretty hard for us to control the evolution of technology," said David Nettles, director of IT architecture and compliance at Rayonier, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based forest products company.
"At first we say, let's control it all. We say, 'You can't post to Facebook while you're at work.' But they can. They just pull out their smartphone," he said. "To think you can stop them is a little naive."
Nettles said Rayonier is gradually implementing an enterprise social collaboration plan, laying the groundwork with Microsoft SharePoint software and Google Apps cloud-based services.
Observers note that any corporate social networking plan must include support for mobile devices along with desktop and laptop systems.
"Our job is to provide access to information and resources as quickly and painlessly as we possibly can," said Angela Yochem, chief technology officer at London-based pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. "If that means providing communication access through mobile devices of any sort, or Google TV, or a desktop or laptop, we want to be able to provide that."
Yochem added that she's found that users tend to get frustrated if they can't use their social networks when and how they want to.
Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said the move toward enterprise use of social networking tools is simply another step in the corporate technology adoption process. "IT needs to respond by providing the tools that the business side needs to foster the collaboration they desire," he said.
Olds explained that prior to the widespread adoption of social networking tools -- by new and veteran employees alike -- IT managers had a difficult time coming up with strong corporate collaboration plans because "they didn't have any good examples to point at to show what they needed."
Today, Olds said, "the task is a bit easier because folks on the business side can now say they need a specific feature like one they use in Twitter or Facebook or Google+."
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.
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This story, "Employees Push IT to Social Networks" was originally published by Computerworld.