Social networking is catching on in the enterprise whether IT likes it or not, said IT leaders at Ford, Continental Airlines and Intel during a discussion at a Microsoft-sponsored event.
Microsoft users say their global workforce and the arrival of Gen Y employees are making strong demands that IT can no longer ignore for new collaboration and social networking tools.
"If you don't pull those solutions into the enterprise and embrace them they are going to happen anyway," said Diane Bryant, global CIO at Intel. Bryant was part of a customer panel at a Microsoft event in San Francisco Tuesday to promote Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Exchange 2010.
"It is the way to attract and retain the next generation of workers who are very comfortable in that mode of collaboration and communication," she said.
Intel is taking a strong stance in embracing social networking with an environment that integrates with its deployment of Microsoft's Office suite. Bryant said the way to deal with social networking tools is to be proactive.
"We have had our meetings with HR and legal to get over the hurdles," she said.
Eric Craig, manager of IT for Continental Airlines, said social networking is also sweeping his organization. "It has exploded in a way we have not anticipated," he said.
The social networking tide started with some 1,000 reservation agents working from home. "The unanticipated benefit of some of those social networking tools was the ability to communicate real-time chat to all these at-home workers. Once that program became popular, there were other business units that said they wanted to work at home, too, and work at odd hours and have families and all those other things that people like."
Ford is also being driven in the direction of social networking adoption.
The theme emerging is that connectivity and collaboration will be a mainstay," said Nick Smither, CIO of Ford Motor Co.
"Right now, business needs it," Smither said. "We do business in 100 markets globally and increasingly we are more dependent on people around the world to contribute to our success long term …that is a business driver."
Smither said Ford also is seeing a push from users who crave the flexibility they get from access to an always-on connection.
"Today's Generation Y coming out of school and entering the workforce, have an expectation around connectivity all the time, always on, whether at home, traveling or in the office," Smither said. "There is a focus on more sophisticated tools in the collaboration space to enable the flexibility to work anywhere."
He did not go into detail around specific applications that Ford is making available to its users, but he did say Microsoft SharePoint Server is at the heart of virtual communities that provide collaboration tools for developers, designers and sales.
The company is building out its collaborative tool set as part of its One Ford global strategy that includes Exchange 2010 on the technology side. The company already processes 1.35 billion e-mails a year for its 201,000 employees.
During the event, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that social networking is largely a consumer phenomenon, but said companies are quickly seeing the potential.
"It is not whether [adoption of social networking tools] will happen in corporations, it's when will it happen," Ballmer said.
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