A technological shock wave is about to hit the Middle East in the form of Silicon Valley's latest brainchild, social networking for the workplace. Inspired by the rapid growth of social-networking sites such as Facebook, which now has about 500 million users, software developers have created services to enable the same level of internet-based networking in the workplace.
Rather than relying on communication by e-mail, staff will create their own profile pages and have instant access to all the information they require across a corporate network. They will also be able to communicate with one another in real time using a technique known as "micro blogging". The difference between social networking and the services designed for the enterprise is that the latter will be carefully monitored and controlled.
"Social networking for the enterprise is particularly suited to the Middle East as much business in the region is done via existing social and family networks," says Ross Mayfield, the president and co-founder of Socialtext. Socialtext claims to be the first developer of enterprise social-network products. Having started in 2002, the company has 6,500 mid-sized to large corporate clients. Other players in the market include Box.net and Cisco Systems.
The potential for enterprise social networking has also attracted Microsoft, which has planned the worldwide launch of Sharepoint 2010, its social-networking service for the enterprise, for tomorrow. Tareq Mandou, Microsoft's product marketing manager for the Gulf region, says: "People in the Middle East have always understood the value of face-to-face networking and were quick to use e-mail. "The next stage is enterprise social networking. Some analysts predict that in four years time, social networking will have replaced e-mail entirely."
The restrictions imposed by e-mail on corporate communications is seen as a key driver for enterprise social networking. "Enterprise networks are far more productive than playing e-mail volleyball all day long," Mr Mayfield says. "Facebook has about 500 million users. The majority of Americans spend more time on social-networking sites than they spend doing their e-mail. More people know how to use social-networking software than ever before. We don't have to educate people to write on Web pages or create profiles."
Rhonda Ascierto, a senior analyst at Ovum, part of the Datamonitor Group, says: "E-mail is one of the most inefficient tools out there. Two people working on a project together constantly sending e-mails back and forth wastes time and this problem increases when more people are involved." Ms Ascierto believes the reverse is true of an open social-networking platform that enables any number of people to communicate and share information instantaneously.
Enterprise social networking "enables everyone working on a project to be able to access all things related to that item. The principle of Metcalfe's law applies. The value of a communications network is proportional to the number of users. Two people share one connection while 12 share 66 connections." According to Ovum, early examples of social networking in the workplace include the US intelligence community's A-Space or Analytic Space, sometimes referred to as "Facebook for spies". It has spurred other agencies in the US and governments elsewhere to implement collaboration tools.
"2010 will be a defining year for social technologies," says Rob Koplowitz, an analyst at Forrester Research. "As organisations move from small pilots to broad deployments, defining a strategy and choosing the right vendor will be critical to long-term success." Enterprise social networks behave remarkably like consumer sites such as Facebook. Someone on Sharepoint 2010, for example, uses My Site to create a profile page complete with photograph in almost exactly the same way as in setting up a profile page for Facebook or MySpace.
The difference is that the enterprise version will contain information of a work-related nature rather than detailing the user's social exploits. Those accustomed to posting their comments on Twitter will also be familiar with the microblogging on an enterprise website. Software developers believe that the familiarity gained by users of social networks will enable rapid adoption of the technology in the workplace.
The metamorphosis of social networking from a consumer pastime into a 21st-century communications tool for the workplace will require a turnaround in company policy towards social networking. Mr Mandou says: "There are companies in the [Gulf] region which still routinely block access to all social-networking sites and this will change. The same process took place with instant messaging, which was first seen as a leisure pursuit before becoming an important business tool."
But many employers in the region may have strong reservations about the suitability of social networking in a business environment. Sites such as Facebook are notorious for hosting indiscretions and private revelations that would be highly unsuitable for any workplace. "Employees will need to adapt their behaviour as they would at the company party or around the water cooler [when on an enterprise social network]," Ms Ascierto says.
A more pressing concern for many organisations is security. Social-networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are generally perceived as possible security risks with executives often inadvertently revealing their geographical movements or other privileged information to the world at large. For many companies, the idea of an in-house social network that is also available to those outside the company sounds like a security nightmare.
But according to developers, it is relatively straightforward to create different levels of secure access so that only executives can see certain information, while other companies and even customers and the public have limited access to other parts of the network. "In the past, you could always attach a password to a file you were e-mailing," Mr Mandou says. "But now you can use IRN (information rights management) to restrict access to key individuals in the network, irrespective of whether they have access to the password or not, making the network more secure."