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Blogs > Office Jotter

A map of enterprise social networking
Roger Whitehead By: Roger Whitehead, Director, Office Futures
Published: 21st February 2011
Copyright Office Futures © 2011

Social networking for organizations involves communication among several entities, not just with customers. These entities include internal groups, departments and divisions; regulators and government; and trading partners. (I touched on this recently in my “No, Social CRM ain’t it” item.)

A widely used expression for a person’s online connections is “social graph”, a term that Facebook has made popular. There’s even an app for it. (Pity it applies only to Facebook contacts.)

While this is helpful for personal connections, it doesn’t distinguish adequately between people and organizations. We need a social graph for businesses, one that covers all connections.

Look who’s talking

First, we need to identify who is doing the connecting. There are five primary links:

  • organization to trading partner (B2B — business to business — in ecommerce terms)
  • organization to regulators and government (B2A — business to administrations)
  • organization to itself (B2S — business to self. Many organizations trade internally as well as communicate thus)
  • organization to customer (B2C — business to consumer)
  • customer to customer (C2C — consumer to consumer).

Although the C2C link is not under the direct control of the organization, it is a conversation that businesses try to involve themselves in.

The London Transport connection

That convoluted-sounding set of linkages is simpler to understand when set out pictorially. An apt framework is the symbol for London Transport, which has been in use for over 90 years. You can see an example here.

If you add to it the five entities involved — the business, itself, administrations, customers and other organizations — you get a result like this.

The social molecule

If you think of those entities as atoms, the resulting diagram is a picture of a social molecule. Each ‘atom’ occupies at least one of these roles — partner, customer, supplier and rival.

The red blobs are intermediaries, such as wholesalers, distributors, resellers, forwarders, retailers and agents. They interpose themselves between the main parties, sometimes to the benefit of one or the other as well as themselves.

(The map has its origins in work I did on electronic commerce some years ago. It applies also to financial and trading interactions.)

Connecting molecules

Every entity that an organization deals with is part of another set of communicative relationships. Each of those second-order entities gives rise to further set of relationships and so on, ad infinitum.

The result is an ever-ramifying network that expands, overlaps and, sometimes, suffers breakdowns and ruptures. This network of ‘molecules’ is, to borrow a term from elsewhere, the social fabric.

The social fabric

Limitations and value

The resulting diagram is, of course, an abstract picture. Like another famous London Transport visual, the ‘Tube’ map, the social fabric diagram suppresses detail, simplifies connections and distorts distances. A firm’s real communicative relationships are many times more complex than portrayed

To show the true extent of any organization’s links would take specialised software — which exists — and access to all the computer connections — which would be difficult, if not illegal. Certain secretive governmental agencies can most likely do this but not commercial organizations.

The abstract exercise is still worthwhile as an aid to understanding. It can help remind the viewer of three important facts about enterprise social networking:

  • there are always more nodes and roles in any real network than simplified models cater for. (‘Supply chain’ is an example.)
  • so far as it can, each node is listening to the traffic on the entire network. What it hears influences its decisions.
  • both the above have always been true, even before computers or the telephone arrived. What enterprise social networking and social media do is make the links more dynamic and far-reaching and the traffic more democratic.

Published by: IT Analysis Communications Ltd.
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