ConnectBeam founder and CEO Puneet Gupta admits that social networking hasn't gotten much traction in the enterprise. But he also believes that the practice of social bookmarking -- as powered by his one-and-a-half-year-old company -- could change all that.
Social bookmarking allows users viewing any piece of content to create their own folders and subject tags. Using ConnectBeam's technology, those bookmarks are made available to anyone else inside the corporation who is searching for information. Along with each tag, the system uses standard directory technology to identify and create profiles of employees who create the bookmarks.
Social bookmarking sites like Del.icio.us and Reddit has been around for a while. But ConnectBeam takes the service into a new realm: behind the firewall. In so doing, Gupta believes he has found a way to give corporate employees the information they need, while allowing them to work the way the want.
ConnectBeam also relies on another standard tool in the social bookmarking toolkit: folksonomy, which is an informal categorization of content based on user-defined tags. Folksonomies are flexible and more powerful than a conventional fixed-category taxonomy. As an example, Gupta notes that a taxonomy has trouble telling the difference between the element Mercury and the planet Mercury; a folksonomy, built on user input, puts content into context, he says.
By leveraging folksonomy and other social networking concepts, Gupta believes that large companies with 15,000 employees and more can gain a level of collaboration that goes beyond what is available today.
As an example, he points with pride to Honeywell, one of the first big organizations (121,000 employees) to take a chance on Gupta's fledgling company. Using ConnectBeam, a Honeywell employee in Boston looking for information on "aviation lighting" might find a bookmark on that subject from another Honeywell employee in Bangalore. That bookmark is certain to be more relevant than something a standard Google search might turn up.
Despite the sheer usefulness of social networking, there is no magic bullet to get companies to adopt the idea. Social networking tends to spread virally, not unlike the transmission method that used to be called word-of-mouth. To encourage adoption, Honeywell started by asking corporate librarians and the e-learning department to import what they had in their Web browser bookmarks into ConnectBeam. A handful of librarians imported their bookmarks twice a day, in the morning and evening. The bookmarks were tagged and placed in folders.
Even from that preliminary experiment, "You could already see the folksonomy emerge. It became a tag cloud," says Gupta. When an employee comes in the following day, does a search, and finds a relevant bookmark in the cloud, he becomes motivated to save what he finds as a bookmark. In a large, niche-focused corporation like Honeywell, the folksonomy around a subject quickly emerges and becomes extremely useful -- as in the case of the aviation-lighting example.
"The fact that somebody took the time to define this unstructured data" says Gupta, "it becomes part of the enterprise's institutional memory forever."