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Social media technology is entering a new phase with communities evolving into vibrant business ecosystems–and HR is poised to play a key role. We’re not talking about ‘Facebook at Work’, but rather a new generation of ‘vertical networks’ developed to meet the particular needs of specific industries and professions.
"Technical resources give access to polls, webinars, video, graphics and high value professional apps, and vertical networks are structured for their profession, rather than one-size-fits-all"
The fact the HR profession is one of these ‘verticals’ is reason enough to learn more about this new generation of social media. But there could soon be a vertical for your industry too.
Business Was the Social Media Trailblazer
It is easy to view the phenomenon of social media through the prism of consumer-focused ‘juggernauts’ like Facebook. But history tells a very different story. The origins of social media (and, indeed, the Internet itself) lie in applications that were resolutely non-consumer.
The 1970s CompuServe system, a ground-breaking development which expanded into the public domain in the late 1980s, was first and foremost a business-oriented computer solution, enabling business people to share files, and access news and events. Its precursor, the BBS (Bulletin Board System) performed a similar, if simpler-service for the technology community.
The more playful social elements we associate with consumer social media were never entirely absent from these non-consumer applications (sharing, like business, is a social process after all). But it was secondary to their main function, which was to help specialists do their job.
But in these rudimentary professional sharing and discussion tools lay the true genesis of what would later become a society-wide consumer explosion (led principally by AOL): Member-created communities, with searchable profiles, enabling parties interested in similar subjects to connect with each other.
Indeed, the development of business social media such as Viadeo, Xing and LinkedIn was underway at the same time as (and in some cases, even preceded) the emergence of the big consumer social media networks that we know today.
The Evolution of Business Social Media
Many different features characterize the development of business social media between 2003 and 2014. Some were technical, some cultural and others organizational. Many bear the hallmarks of similar developments in consumer social media.
Whether on business or consumer social media, conversations that were previously private are now public. Participants join in exchanges with people they don’t know and have never met. Group and chat functions enable simultaneous, multi-threaded dialogue with many different interlocutors, in real time.
In a business sense, perhaps what is driving this evolution more than anything else is an underlying trend in many organizations towards less hierarchy and flatter reporting structures. Put bluntly, everybody is talking to people in their organization they would never have thought to talk to 15 years ago – both upstream and downstream.
“Facebook opened the door for this,” according to Ben Boyer, Managing Director at venture capital firm, Tenaya Capital, “in getting us to be comfortable to communicate and interact with people in a virtual environment”.
This openness in communication has found a natural bedfellow in the business social media platform. Indeed, businesses have increasingly realized that good ideas can come from anywhere in the organization, and are keen to nurture them.
But this kind of creative plurality can be wastefully dissipated if it doesn’t have an environment that can sustain and promote it. Business social media, with its emphasis on sharing, conversation, and interaction, achieves this precisely.
The Growth of ‘Vertical Networks’
LinkedIn, Xing, Viadeo and similar horizontal business networks now face mounting threats from rapidly growing ‘vertical networks’ focused on specific professions. Communities for teachers, software developers, lawyers, doctors and others are springing up quickly. Venture capitalists and investment banks see vertical networks as the new generation of business publishing. More than $ 1 billion has been invested in the sector in the last four years and the pace of growth is accelerating.
The new communities differ substantially from shared interest groups on the horizontal networks. There are more than two million such groups on LinkedIn, for example, of which ‘Linked:HR’ is the fourth biggest with almost a million members. This is tiny, however, compared with vertical networks such as SpiceWorks, Academia and Edmodo, with 6, 16 and 58 million members respectively.
Vertical networks appeal to members far more strongly than LinkedIn et al for many reasons. Rigorous checks on the authenticity of members ensure higher value peer-to-peer interaction. Technical resources give access to polls, webinars, video, graphics and high value professional apps, and vertical networks are structured for their profession, rather than one-size-fits-all.
Most important are the high value resources provided to members, usually free of charge. Doximity has quickly attracted more than 700,000 US doctors, for example, because it offers unique facilities to quickly share patient records through legally-compliant eFax tools. Edmodo allows teachers around the world to share lesson plans, while SpiceWorks offers a generous suite of free IT resources.
By providing tools to make life substantially easier for their members, vertical networks are transformed from sources of news and information (like websites) or chat rooms (like LinkedIn groups) into a higher value component of their members’ professional lives. Visits are longer and more frequent – and network owners can track every action taken, generating rich data on each and every member.
This makes vertical networks far more valuable to commercial interests, with advertisers clamouring to reach finely targeted subsets of members. It also provides tools for the network owners to market relevant goods and services such as technologies and e-Learning to audiences with whom they enjoy high levels of positive engagement.
A Vertical Network for the HR Profession
It should come as little surprise to learn there soon will be a vertical network for the HR profession too. ‘Metzano–the Global HR Network’ is uniquely poised for rapid growth too, being operated in parallel with Linked:HR.
Metzano will provide many tools and opportunities for HR professionals in a much more robust and interactive way than currently available. Metzano members will be able to network in ways not possible before–they can interact with those who have similar characteristics in unlimited combinations. They will have tools and information at their fingertips to make their job easier. And it won’t matter if they are an HR Department of one–they will have the same opportunities and resources available now to large enterprise organizations. Those in large organizations can tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of individual HR practitioners on a global scale. They will be able to find events with simple searches in one place.