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Of facebook and office networking
Govindraj Ethiraj in Mumbai
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August 14, 2007

My reasonably computer literate friend was in a tizzy last week. She needed a digital photograph of herself. And fast. Her friends had been bombarding her with mails for the last few days. Why, I asked her, when she asked to borrow my digital camera. As in, for what ? "Oh, that's for my facebook profile," she said.

That was a revelation. She did not fit my description of someone who would be active on a social networking site. Nor did she fit my description of someone who would be running around trying to find a photograph because her `network' friends (one presently located in the US Virgin Islands) were getting impatient with her.

The last few months have brought fresh learnings from the world of social networking. I have discovered that several friends and acquaintances are not only profiled on either facebook or orkut (for younger and the not so serious kind apparently) but are approaching addiction stage in usage levels.

Much has been written about facebook and continues to be so I will refrain from delving into the features that sites such as this offer. Except for one aspect. My friend works for a transnational. On facebook, she only has a handful of friends listed, including one added in error. But her 'networks' list of colleagues from the same organisation was larger.

The networks list actually ran into over two thousand profiles of colleagues from all over the world. They ranged from senior colleagues in Pakistan and Sri Lanka to new recruits in Chicago and London. Most had detailed, personalised profiles listed, notably the department they worked with and, in some cases, the projects they were working on.

Facebook has obviously designed workplace networking in to its offering. The question is can this become something more useful for organisations? Actually, it is already useful because an informal network can add value to the formal hierarchy.

Imagine, for instance, looking up a colleague in another city (which could be half way round the world) while visiting because you have met him or her on a social networking site. You know each other's interests. You know what your colleague's personal friend's circle is like. You also know his or her approach to the company's product or services. And you've already connected, in a manner of speaking.

All of which can be tremendously useful, looking at it from a somewhat selfish, corporate point of view. Extend that to smaller circles in the same geography and it gets even better or at least could get. Often we do not or do not want to connect with professional colleagues because we are unsure of their social connections. Facebook et al seem to resolve that problem.

The good news is that you could have a more productive, friendly to each other workforce, at least in parts. This could work laterally, vertically and across geographies. The bad news could be that the distinction between work and life might blur. But that's another story.

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