Facebook Inc. has changed the way people socialize on the Web. Now the same concept is changing the way people interact at work.
New social-networking applications aimed at the workplace borrow from Facebook in that they enable workers to set up profiles, form groups and "follow" each other's status updates. But the purpose isn't just social connection; rather, it is to increase productivity by making it easier for employees to identify who does what within an organization and to share their knowledge.
"It's very difficult to collaborate on email and figure out who the experts are," says Rob Koplowitz, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "A lot of organizations are finding that working more socially…magnifies the value of information."
These new business tools are based on the idea that email isn't always the best method of communication for widely dispersed workers who need to collaborate on projects or stay abreast of other initiatives within their organizations.
"Email is a 50-year-old technology" and an inefficient way to get work done, says Tony Zingale, chief executive of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Jive Software Inc., which went public in December and whose software allows organizations to maintain their own social networks, among other things. "Collaborative communications are more effective," he says.
Among the other companies selling social-networking applications for businesses are Yammer Inc., Tibco Software Inc. and Salesforce.com Inc., which offers a service called Chatter.
Rob Zell, a leadership-development specialist with Dallas-based 7-Eleven Inc., says the company has about 2,000 employees using Yammer. The convenience-store operator says it deployed the application in May 2011 to help field consultants, who work with local franchise owners, share their knowledge and learn best practices from one another.
Someone might post a picture of a display that worked particularly well in one franchise location, so that others can see it and try the same approach in their areas.
"I use the analogy of the virtual water cooler," Mr. Zell says. "People talk about what's going on in an informal way and have some formal documentation to keep track of best practices."
The companies selling these applications recommend that users create virtual groups so employees can follow a specific topic, branch of the company or type of job.
"Groups are the key," says David Sacks, chief executive of San Francisco-based Yammer, which has four million users. Information-technology professionals can create the groups, but employees should be permitted to create them, as well, so that people can follow topics they are interested in without having to sort through a flood of information, Mr. Sacks says.
In January 2011, Tibco Software launched a service called tibbr that not only enables users to follow what colleagues are doing, it also allows them to follow data, such as the status of an order or invoice.
The service automatically surfaces data so that those interested in keeping track of, for example, orders are notified every time one is filled, rather than having to go look for that information.
"We can bring that information and post it on your proverbial wall," says Ram Menon, the president of social computing for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tibco, which says it has 70 customers and close to a million users.
Brian Frezza, co-founder and chief executive of Silicon Valley-based biotech start-up Emerald Therapeutics, says that before he started using software from San Francisco-based Asana that allows people associated with tasks to see what others are doing and comment on it, he spent most of his time in 30-minute meetings with his eight employees. There was no easy way for people to know what others had accomplished or had placed as their top priorities, he says.
Mr. Frezza says he now keeps his Asana window open all day, so he can follow what his workers are doing and how they are progressing on various projects. "From the management side, it's staying on track," he says. "It puts things into coherent threads."
Getting employees to rely more on these social-networking tools for communication and less on email can be a challenge, according to company executives. They say the key to pushing adoption is making sure that senior managers are using the tools. Employees will use a social-networking service if they know their chief executive is on there, listening to their feedback and input, they say.
Making the tools fun to use also helps.
Melissa Madura-Altmann, a vice president of communications at Prudential Real Estate Investors, a unit of Prudential Financial Inc., says she tried to get employees excited about using Jive's software by assigning points to people when they posted on the site.
Employees reacted very competitively, she says, trying to rack up points even though there was no prize involved. "It's fun to see that kind of reaction," she says.
Wayne Shurts, chief information officer at Supervalu Inc., a grocery giant with stores in 48 states, says the idea to install Yammer for the company's 15,000 associates came from Chief Executive Craig Herkert, who returned from a Microsoft Corp. CEO conference in Seattle in the fall of 2010 inspired by the idea of using social-media tools to unify employees at his various companies.
Some of Supervalu's workers were already making use of a free version of Yammer's product, so "it was sort of like the top met the bottom in this beautiful way," says Mr. Shurts.
Supervalu, which owns brands such as Albertson's in the U.S. Northwest and Shaw's in New England, was created through a series of acquisitions, so the company was looking for a way to foster better communication and a sense of shared culture.
"The real benefit for us was to break down those walls and start to act and operate as Supervalu," says Mr. Shurts.
This story first appeared on WSJ.com.
Ms. Raice is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's San Francisco bureau. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.