How To Use Social Networking Tools To Strengthen Virtual Collaboration
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted February 04, 2012

I am not one to jump on a new tool just because it’s out there. But after months of watching others and waiting, I recently plunged (well, maybe dipped a toe or two) into the world of Twitter. It was inevitable, despite some of my early protestations. Pretty much all of my colleagues are doing it, as are my competitors, and more and more of my clients. Social networking (SN) tools like Twitter really are opening up new ways for virtual workers to connect, communicate and collaborate. SN tools do what email, instant messaging and other more traditional communications means cannot: They foster emergence, meaning that people and groups can naturally and easily link together based on their common interests, skills or profiles, often with people they never even realized existed.

Of course, any tool can be disruptive in a group if used in inappropriate ways. Based on my work with clients and colleagues who work as part of geographically dispersed teams, here are just a few helpful ways to use SN tools.

Getting introductions. There are a number of SN sites that leverage the concept of “degrees of separation” to help people connect to people they wish to know. These services are based on the notion of profiles. You create an account, and list the companies that you’ve worked for, schools you attended, or other information about yourself that you want to make public. Then, you “invite” connections to “link” to you. LinkedIn provides a publicly accessible service. Once you’ve established your network on LinkedIn, you have access to the networks of the people in your network. Want to find out if anyone you know knows someone working at IBM? Try LinkedIn. (Spoke and Xing are other popular such sites.) It will even offer to help make an introduction to these potential contacts. A more personal, inside-the-company tool for introductions is Visible Path. This tool looks at the Contacts lists of everyone in a company to create a database of who-knows-who outside the company. If you’re a salesperson who wants an in at a certain company, Visible Path will guide you to the people in your company who can connect you.

Establishing and maintaining personal connections with business colleagues. Creating a social context and building “social capital” to cultivate trust among members is much easier for virtual teams, thanks to FaceBook, MySpace or similar SN sites. With these tools, you can control who your “friends” are, who sees your profile and who is notified about your activities. People in a particular group or area of the company can set up a private group with restricted access. Team members can easily post personal and professional information to give everyone a more well-rounded sense of the real person they’re working with, especially when face-to- face meetings are impossible or impractical. By sharing information about hobbies and interests, and posting photos of their families and pets, people who are not in and out of each others’ offices can see what they might have in common. Some tools such as WorkLight enable organizations to keep business information from FaceBook users in-house, requiring all the same security measures users would need to access mail or other applications internally.

Co-creating and sharing content. Like many of the social software tools, Blogs and Wikis began as tools to support publishing on the Internet and widely prevalent within organizations as ways to capture and share personal observations and knowledge. In the context of a virtual team, a blog can provide a diary or history of a project on a regular basis, revealing what issues are being handled, inviting comments, or providing a running commentary. Personal blogs by subject matter experts can provide a way for people with similar interests to keep up with what others are working on or learning. Wikis are an easy and affordable way to collaborate and develop community websites. A wiki allows users to create, edit, and link web pages easily. Internal wikis typically require a registration, while many external wikis (most famously, Wikipedia) allow anyone to read, add and edit comments to a dynamic body of knowledge. More businesses are using Wikis as highly affordable Intranets and as a relatively easy way to set up a knowledge management system.

Keeping on the edge of ideas and learning. Blogs are one way to keep up with what people are thinking, but a more focused approach is provided by the web site del.icio.us or other social bookmarking sites. Social bookmarking allows Internet users to store, organize, search, and manage web page bookmarks. Most social bookmark services encourage users to organize their bookmarks with informal tags for remembering or sharing pages later. Virtual team members can access others’ bookmarks, with permission, to greatly expand the collective repository of topical information. Feeling overwhelmed by the web sites you want to follow, blogs and tags you want to track? That’s where RSS (Really Simple Syndication) comes in. RSS allows you to subscribe to any blog, wiki, person, topic, web site, and so on. Then, once subscribed, you are notified if someone writes a new blog entry, or if there is a change to a wiki you are participating in, or a topic that you’ve tagged as something you want to know about. What’s new, current or on the cutting edge, can be delivered to you in your email, on your FaceBook page, or any growing number of sites.

Staying constantly connected. At a more granular level, there is, of course, Twitter. For teams whose members want to convey frequent detailed updates of their comings and goings, pointers for great resources or content, etc., Twitter may come in handy. Senders can restrict delivery to those in his or her circle of friends. Users can receive updates via the Twitter website, instant messaging, SMS, RSS, email or through a third-party application, like Linked-In, Facebook or Google Reader. For a great article series of how-to articles on getting started with Twitter or Facebook for business purposes, see www.searchengineguide.com.

Creating greater transparency. When work is more transparent the opportunities to offer help or work together become more plentiful. Thanks to tools like instant messaging (available in some form almost anywhere) and Skype, you can find out who is available to talk to you at the moment. Such communication tools let people indicate if they’re available, busy, out of the office, etc. Skype provides the ability to chat, as well as to ring up and talk using Voice Over IP (VOIP) protocols. As we know about virtual teaming, the ability to create understanding grows with the bandwidth. Talking briefly can often save many emails and sidestep many confusing chat messages.

Social software tools are revolutionizing our ability to connect and collaborate, to stay aware of what others are up to, are interested in, and to find ways to share as much as we want about our own personal lives. The challenge is finding a few tools that best help you meet your objectives, putting them to the test, and then choosing the ones that deserve a place in your overall team communications plan.

By the way, if you want to follow my tweets, I go by the handle of nsettlemurphy.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy