As companies grow, employees tend to know less about their fellow employees and can lose access to their most valuable resource: their coworkers’ knowledge base. To bridge this gap, companies like Facebook are developing internal social network solutions that mirror traditional social networks in an attempt to reconnect coworkers and help them be more productive. Is this virtual water cooler right for your business? Let’s take a look.
What are business social networks?
Business social networks give businesses the tools to create their own social networks, where only their employees have access. In the case of Facebook's version, Facebook at Work, the social network looks and acts much like the public version of Facebook with groups, newsfeeds, and messaging. Instead of dog pictures and restaurant check-ins, the information shared on the business social network centers around work projects, company events, and professional development.
While Facebook at Work looks similar to the company’s public social network, competitor platforms like Slack only operate within businesses. These business-focused sites may seem less familiar to users than a popular public social network.
What features do business social networks offer?
While each platform seeks to distinguish itself from its competitors, the general features are similar across sites, with a focus on bringing employees together and helping them collaborate.
- Groups: Workspaces where teams can gather, share information and files, and collaborate. Group posts are divided into threads and are archived, allowing any teammate to search past conversations for information.
- Chat: Instant messaging, sometimes with video conferencing capabilities. Tells you when people are online, and allows teammates to interact and ask questions quickly—without picking up the phone or sending an email.
- Homepage: Also known as a newsfeed. A main screen where people can share general information, files, and news. Similar to an intranet, but with increased usability to encourage everyday use (most employees visit their organization’s intranet just once a month). 
- Search function: Allows employees to search all the public content they or their teammates have posted, greatly improving employees’ access to information.
- Mobile functionality: Nearly 68% of U.S. adults own a smartphone.  As a result, almost every business social network is designed to work across mobile phones, tablets, PCs, and more. This includes support for Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android.
What business social networks are available?
There are a number of companies currently pioneering the business social network space, targeting both small and large businesses. While not all of them are destined for success (Google Wave is an example of a failed business social network), many of them have been live or in development for years. Facebook has been working on the idea for Facebook at Work for the past 10 years. 
Choosing one network over another is more a matter of preference than anything else. Most offer relatively similar features with some unique selling points. Facebook is more consumer-like, Slack is very stripped down, Yammer integrates into Office 365, and so forth. With that in mind, here are some of the main platforms to consider.
- Facebook at Work: a business-focused version of Facebook using the same Facebook tools you’re already familiar with (such as groups) to interact with coworkers. Work accounts are only visible to other people at your company.
- Yammer: Microsoft’s take on a business social network, integrated within Office 365 to allow teammates to work and comment on the same documents from anywhere in the world. While the network is private, you can loop customers and vendors into conversations too.
- Slack: More of a messaging app than a social network. Slack brings all of a team’s communications into a single interface, organizing conversations into private and public channels. Slack is designed for smaller teams, though an Enterprise version is under development.
- Convo: Described as a “platform for work conversations,” Convo provides messaging, a real-time feed for all your conversations, and (most impressively) the ability to highlight and comment on documents without having to leave the platform.
- Socialcast: This network’s unique selling point is how easy it makes it to solicit feedback from large and small groups—including a digital form of a town hall. It also includes the ability to embed real-time feeds into conversations, reducing the need to switch between applications mid-conversation.
Is a business social network right for your business?
Most platforms work well for both large and small businesses—especially when some employees work from home, telecommute, or work across multiple offices. The reason: most business social networks focus as much on productivity as they do on connecting employees socially.
The one exception is Facebook at Work, which specifically targets companies of 100+ people. While Facebook at Work does offer some productivity features, it is predominantly used to connect people within large organizations that might otherwise not even know about each other. It is not used to streamline ongoing projects or provide a searchable database of past conversations.
Additionally, business social networks offer an easy way for any business to move away from the mass emailing that clogs up employees’ inboxes to more immediate, searchable, and intuitive ways of connecting that favor collaboration and fluid (rather than static) communication.
Take the first step
For most businesses, there's nothing to lose from trying a business social network. Most business social network solutions offer free trials and some solutions, such as Slack, work on a freemium model where you can try out the basic version for free and upgrade if/when you’re ready.
If your business is ready to take the first step, consider starting with a small user group for the initial trial, like the design department or all members on a specific project. Set goals for what you’d like them to achieve, and talk with everyone before and after the trial for a clearer view of how the business social network has changed their perceptions and performance.
Windows and Office 365 are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries. OS is a trademark of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries. iOS is a trademark or registered trademark of Cisco in the U.S. and other countries. Android is a trademark of Google Inc.