Business networking. On your terms

Better than E-mail

For some time now, we have been working to build a communcation and networking alternative to e-mail. E-mail has its uses and advantages, but there are things that it simply does not do well, like maintaining user security for instance. We have been working on a project called Symposium, which we are hoping will serve as a supplement—or even a replacement—for e-mail in corporate settings, and which may serve as a one-stop shop where you can catch up on Facebook, Twitter and Google+ messages as well as messages from e-mail.

Our statement of purpose can be found here, and the code is here. We welcome eyeballs, tweaks and comments from the open source community. We are very excited about this project, and we believe that it can go a long way towards filling a void in the area of online communications.

Hyping Your Company

good networking/collaboration platform is an excellent instrument for getting the attention of potential clients and partners.

Why? Well, for one thing, if you want to use your networking/collaboration platform to add to your company’s Web presence, you can do so. This may mean making your networking site at least somewhat available to the public, but even if you choose not to do so, by making your platform available to project collaborators from other organizations, you have the option of allowing those collaborators to see various content that serves as a potent and positive advertisement for the services offered by your company–content including representative work that your business has done on other client matters. Thus, even as your collaborators work with you on one project, they are able to get an idea of the capabilities of your business, thus paving the way for future collaboration on other projects as well.

Networking/collaboration platforms can serve as an online brochure that attract interest from potential clients and partners. They are yet another tool in helping your business put its best foot forward, thus attracting more work and revenue. And which business doesn’t want that?

Building a Better Group

Be sure to check out this old but useful article on group intelligence, which features, among other things, ways in which groups can behave more intelligently.

Groups that use this information will enjoy a temporary advantage over rival groups that do not. But eventually, information becomes widely dispersed, and everyone uses it, thus diluting whatever advantage exists in using it first. That’s when other instruments have to be used to create an advantage for a particular group. Instruments like superior networking/collaboration platforms, for example, when it comes to groups working on business projects.

Something to mull over as you consider how to get the most out of your project team.

Have We Mentioned How Important Security Is?

Social networking privacy breaches are distressing to fans of the social networking model. If networking/collaboration platforms are to be used in any field beyond a social setting, there must be guarantees that those who use it will not find their privacy or security to be compromised. This is especially true in a business setting, given issues of confidentiality, and efforts by companies to counteract the dangers of industrial espionage.

To this end, it is important to stress anew the need for networking/collaboration platforms to be hyper-secure, to be able to limit users as those in charge of project management see fit, to have system defaults designed to offer more security, not less, and to permit less security only by having users opt out of system defaults. The ability to opt out must be available, and must be user-friendly as well, but the decision to opt out can only be undertaken by users and teams employing a networking/collaboration platform. It cannot be undertaken by a platform ill-designed to suit their security needs.

There are a great many conveniences that can be offered by networking/collaboration platforms in a business setting. But those who use it need, above all, the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the information and communications that they store on these platforms are hidden to all but authorized pairs of eyes.

How Networking/Collaboration Tools Help in a Legal Setting

Suppose that your business gets sued.

It’s not a pleasant thought, but it is one that every business needs to entertain, and to be prepared for. When a suit takes place, the parties undertake discovery of each other’s documents. Oftentimes, discovery can be an exceedingly unwieldy process, involving looking through millions of documents, which takes countless man hours, involves legions of attorneys, and even a team of consultants dedicated solely and exclusively to the effort of managing documents. Along the way, a discovery team has to wade through scores of utterly irrelevant documents, including an ocean of e-mails retrieved from key custodians that are written via the business’s e-mail service, but which are entirely of a personal nature, and therefore immaterial to the litigation at hand.

It doesn’t take much to realize just how out of control this process can get.

Now, imagine how much easier it would be to hand over relevant communications–in the event that a discovery order has deemed them relevant–that are compiled by a networking/collaboration tool, with a log that is in the control of the business leadership. Because collaboration tools are designed to have team members talk to one another concerning a particular project, and because outsiders are not able to access the tool if good security features are in place, there is significantly less chance that there will be irrelevant, non-business related, personal material that lawyers and document management agencies will nevertheless charge time for reviewing. It will be far easier for businesses using a networking/collaboration platform to compile messages concerning the litigation, hand them over pursuant to a discovery order, and be confident that hours and money won’t have to be wasted by having lawyers and document management consultants look through irrelevant material.

No one likes thinking about having their business get sued. But when a company is prepared to manage the litigation in a fashion that is efficient in terms of both time and money spent, then that can take some of the sting out of the experience.

The Importance of Security

Remember when the WikiLeaks controversy began garnering headlines? Then you likely remember that in addition to all of the diplomatic cables that it has released, WikiLeaks threatened to release bank communications as well in order to try to embarrass the rich and powerful.

Whether the threat to release bank communications and records is for real, or whether it is a bluff, it highlights the need for companies and businesses to have access to a hyper-secure method for communications. E-mail is not going anywhere anytime soon, but e-mails are remarkably easy to leak, and the use by employees of company e-mails for personal communications has long been a headache and a nightmare for IT folks, corporate security, company lawyers, and business leaders in general.

A networking/collaboration tool with features ensuring hyper-security would help bring an end to a lot of those headaches and nightmares. One of the virtues of the collaborative process would be the ability to ensure that communications only go to those who are cleared to access and use a company’s networking/collaboration tool. That way, company resources will not be used to send of personal messages to people outside the company. Along these lines, the chances that communications can, or will be leaked to outsiders is significantly reduced. A log of communications can keep track of who said what, and can ensure that in the rare instance that unauthorized disclosures of information do occur, they will be discovered, thus allowing action to be taken to make sure that future disclosures will not take place. The integrity of the collaborative process can therefore be maintained, confidentiality will be more easily ensured, and companies and individuals can go about their missions and jobs with greater confidence that their internal deliberations will not be made public, thus allowing them to engage in, and benefit from full and frank discussions regarding the issues they are confronted with.

The Value of Aesthetic Controls

Every time Facebook launches a re-design, we see and hear users complaining about the changes that have been forced on them.

Some of those complaints are valid, but there is nothing that users can do to resist them, save leaving Facebook. Part of having a Facebook account means accepting that you are playing on Facebook’s turf, and that as a consequence, you have to abide by Facebook’s rules. Thus, when Facebook rules that users have to experience a redesign to their pages, users who wish to keep their Facebook accounts have no choice but to accept.

But this is not how it has to be in the business world. Networking/collaboration tools can, and should remain in the hands of the companies and businesses that pay to use them, to configure as they see fit. This includes control over aesthetics; companies should be the final judges of how they want their networking/collaboration pages to look–from the layout, to the functionality, to the decision whether to place a company logo on pages.

There is a practical aspect to all of this, of course. Changing the aesthetics of a page means that users need to be re-trained on the functionality of their pages. This takes time, resources, and money. If changes are to take place in the aesthetics of a platform, those changes should occur on the timetable of the companies using the platform, not on some arbitrary timetable imposed by some outside force like the developer/seller of the platform. And if companies don’t want to spend time, resources, or money re-training users on a particular platform, they shouldn’t be forced to, and they should be allowed to keep the aesthetics of their platforms intact so that they won’t have to.

Wave of the Future

For those who might wonder at our claim that networking/collaboration platforms can be used in place of the traditional meeting in a number of instances, see this old but useful story about a philosophy conference held entirely over Twitter. I don’t know how successful the Twitter conference was, but the post appears to write favorably of it. Now, imagine just how productive companies can be if, in addition to the face-to-face conferences that they are forced to have–and again, no one envisions the elimination of face-to-face conferences anytime soon–they are able to work together via a smart, user-friendly, hyper-secure networking/collaboration tool that allows for the sharing of documents and presentations, comments on those documents and presentations, and no 140 character limit.

The Value of Threaded Conversations

Let’s ask ourselves how a superior collaborative experience can take place.

Well, in place of a meeting, someone working on a particular project can put up a link to a PDF document, a PowerPoint, an Issuu-published document, a Scribd document, or some other such writing, and invite colleagues to comment. Via threaded conversations, colleagues can respond to the posted piece–and to each other–offering suggestions, constructive criticism, encouragement, and interacting collectively to offer valuable feedback. As mentioned in the previous post, offering people the ability to carefully consider, and carefully craft their written feedback would both encourage commentary, and would augment its quality. The process would be neat and organized, and the conversation would be laid out in print for authorized personnel–including groups in other organizations with clearance and authorization–to peruse, and to respond to. The individual who began the thread could help drive the conversation, ask appropriate questions, and then use the offered comments to revise his/her document or presentation as necessary. The presence of the threaded conversation can help guide the creation of similar future pieces or presentations, and can serve as a valuable historical artifact concerning how the company, or groups within one or several companies with access to the networking/collaboration tool, approached a particular problem or issue.

Again, it is worth noting that face-to-face meetings still need to be had. But it is also worth emphasizing that face-to-face meetings are looked upon with deep skepticism by business leaders seeking to save time, and save money. A smart, effective, responsive networking/collaboration tool is needed more than ever to better manage the meeting of minds, and to save time and money for companies that too often are short of both.

Networking and Collaboration as an Efficiency Multiplier, and a Money-Saver

The recession may officially be over, but companies are still pinching pennies. And with good reason; no one knows for sure whether the economy is out of the woods, and both individuals and businesses are preparing for a worst case scenario, in which we suffer a double-dip recession.

There are, of course, lots of ways in which money can be saved. One such way is cutting out unnecessary business trips for meetings. Nowadays, of course, one can use GoToMeeting to convene a get-together. But even when using GoToMeeting, one may not get the kind of results that one may want from a meeting.

Why? Well, meetings tend to be unruly affairs. Some people talk a lot. Others, not at all. Some people try to talk, but end up getting talked over by more voluble, more insistent, more senior, and/or more powerful types. Result: The meeting may very well end up being less informative than it could have been, if everyone had had the chance to contribute.

Here is where a good networking/collaboration platform can save the day. Instead of having a meeting that descends into a free-for-all, a platform can be deployed which can host documents, and everyone will have the chance to type in comments on the documents in order to help bring about a more fruitful exchange of ideas. No one gets talked over, no one gets shouted down, and even shy people not given to speaking in public can contribute, and interact with others. A meeting via a networking/collaboration platform can be orderly, can take into account the opinions of a greater number of people than can many a traditional meeting, and can therefore be more informative as a result.

No one says, of course, that the traditional face-to-face meeting is, or should be, a thing of the past. But it can be supplemented with collaborative interactions that make for a richer, more informative experience.

And at lower prices, to boot.