Microblog while you work

E-mail only gets you so far. Now, some companies turn to a new tool: pithy online posts.

Oscar Hidalgo/AP
E-mail? How passé: Used to texts, IMs, and blogs, many young professionals, such as Rachel Quizon, see e-mail as just a way to keep in touch with parents and bosses.

The microblogging site Twitter has become hugely popular in the social sphere by inviting users to answer the simple question: “What are you doing?” Now, several new microblogging tools for the workplace are posing a variant on the question: “What are you working on?”

If that sounds like a Big Brother device for your boss to curtail your coffee break, breathe easy. Corporate microblogging tools, such as those offered by Yammer, Qikcom, and Present.ly, have a larger purpose. These internal-communication services allow multitasking employees to update each other via short, blog-like posts.

By blasting haiku-length updates to a central hub, workers can post status bulletins, share ideas, ask questions, post news, and pass along links and information. The upshot: Microblogging has the potential to facilitate collegial collaboration and help organizations collect, share, and disseminate knowledge.

“Businesses thrive, in the Information Age, on people being informed and connected to people with the right information,” says Gil Yehuda, a Forrester Research analyst who examines how knowledge-management technologies affect productivity.

“There’s an awful lot of information that is shareable, but is not shared,” he says. “In many cases, it’s because people don’t know where to share it. They’re already sharing it, but it’s in an e-mail, or in a document stored in a network drive, or appropriately placed in a document management system such as Sharepoint, but other people don’t have access to it, or know to go to it. Where microblogging attempts to add value is to surface that knowledge that’s already there, and to make it very easy to find.”

At New Age Technologies, a 130-employee IT services firm in Louisville, Ky., microblogging had a noticeable impact during its first month. “We use Present.ly very much like extending a hallway conversation to a virtual hallway,” says Shannon Snowden, a consultant. “We’ve got about 30 people on it right now from groups that ordinarily wouldn’t talk to each other – we’ve got someone from marketing talking to a technical delivery person.”

Employees who previously weren’t very vocal are now making themselves heard on the shared space, he adds.
It’s too early to tell whether other companies will follow the early adopters. But several Web 2.0 firms have released microblogging tools in the past few months, each touting competitive advantages.

The high-profile Yammer, which won the influential TechCrunch 50 award upon its September launch, allows anyone with a corporate e-mail address to sign up for free. (IT departments have to pay to administer the network.) Its prime rival, Present.ly, goes one step further – it allows people from different companies, such as consultants and contractors, to join a feed. It also offers media-sharing capabilities and separate grouping areas.

But whereas Present.ly charges companies per user, another top player, Qikcom, offers its business microblog for free. It plans to make money by selling specialized applications for its service.

“We have a competition tab and what that does is it goes out and searches the Web for information on all your competitors and consolidates it all into one nice feed,” explains Qikcom founder Travis VanderZanden. “The employees can vote on the threat level of each individual article, or they could actually comment on that article.”

Qikcom’s own competition tab is likely working overtime to keep up with new entrants to the market, such as Enterprise Social Messaging Experiment and SocialCast. But don’t expect microblogging to supplant e-mail or instant messaging. If anything, companies may prove reluctant to add yet another communication tool – and thus another potential distraction – to the workplace.

Mr. Yehuda from Forrester has conducted research that shows how some conversations – ranging from emotional topics to proprietary information – are more appropriate in e-mail form than in a public forum.

Though Yehuda is still weighing the pros and cons of microblogs, he says they offer great potential. If microblogs learn to analyze data and create social graphs, they could reveal whom is most in the know, which individuals are creating bridges between departments, and which people are connecting information within their own groups.

“Enterprises will see this as a tremendously valuable tool not just for employee collaboration but for gaining really deep insight into human-capital management,” he says.

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