Aug 29, 2011 (10:08 AM EDT)
5 Enterprise Social Trends For Next 5 Years

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There's no arguing that social networking has changed the way that people interact with each other in their personal lives. But what about in the business space? Certainly, social networking is making its presence felt in a big way in the enterprise, but this is just the beginning, according to experts who weighed in on how social networking will change the enterprise in the next five years.

1. It will flatten the organization. Social networking will break down hierarchical barriers and expand the ability of users to connect with people who can best get the job done--no matter what the task or what jobs the people normally do. "In the social enterprise, organizations are flatter--you can discover people in other parts of the organization who have critical skills and relevant knowledge, instead of having your perception narrowed down by their formal job descriptions," said Peter Coffee, VP and head of platform research at Salesforce.com.

Luosheng Peng, CEO of business networking company GageIn, agreed: "Access to information, people, and tools has often been siloed in the past," said Peng. "For example, the C-suite or sales team would receive competitive intelligence updates, or only the PR team would see market news first. Social networking in the enterprise will break down those barriers and provide equal access to information across levels and job functions. The CEO may realize that some of the smartest ideas in the organization came from an unexpected source."

2. Your customers will be a bigger--and more vocal--part of your community. Savvy companies have been using social networking to leverage customer feedback to inform strategic product development, a trend that will grow moving forward. "You can form communities of interest with your customers, who often--in aggregate--know more than your own internal experts about the limits of what your products can do," said Salesforce.com's Coffee. "You can build a network that includes the products themselves, providing real-time feedback on customer needs, instead of asking your customers to remember and describe their wish lists for product improvement. You can make your products special, even in markets that constantly flirt with commoditization, by making your products their users' friends."

3. The traditional customer service model will be turned on its head. Speaking of customers, companies will increasingly use social networking to provide customer service. Karim Guessous, co-founder and CEO of social shopping company Tradepal, predicts that more than 50% of customer service will be conducted via social networks, "whether FAQ, help, or even one-to-one support."

4. Internal social networks will be the new intranets. Just as company intranets evolved from the public internet, so, too, have internal social networks evolved from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Moving forward, a company's internal social network will be its major communications platform. "The use of social networking for internal information dissemination, team-building, and knowledge capture and transfer will be the norm, not the exception," said Jay Baer, co-author of "The NOW Revolution" and president of social media strategy consultancy Convince & Convert. "As operating cultures continue to pick up speed, enterprise businesses will turn to internal social networks--the new intranets--to build connections among far-flung team members.

5. The marketing function will expand. According to Baer, social networking makes everyone in the enterprise potentially a marketer. "Employees aren't making TV commercials at night, or designing magazine ads on the weekend," said Baer. "[But] harnessing the personal social graph of employees who volunteer to occasionally talk about the company in social networks is a huge opportunity for the enterprise." Of course, this will require companies to put some training and guidelines in place to ensure that the messaging is on point and in line with business policies and goals.

These predictions just touch on the changes social networking will surely bring to the enterprise. And it should be noted that Salesforce.com's Coffee told me that the five-year timeframe I posed was much too leisurely: "This is happening right now; within the next one to three years, it will be a competitive requirement. To get out in front, organizations must think about the empowerment that they're asking their team members to accept and embrace," he said. Salesforce.com is hosting its annual Dreamforce conference this week in San Francisco.

How has social networking changed your organization, and what do you expect to see in the next five years? Comments are welcome below.

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