Lately you might have been hearing about “SharePoint Social,” the social features of SharePoint—and you might be wondering how to plan, implement and support, and develop on top of SharePoint’s rich social capabilities. First, though, you and your management might want an answer to the burning question: “Why use SharePoint's social features?

Out in the community, my clients and the people I meet ask this question in different ways—for example, “How can I explain SharePoint’s social features to my boss?” or “Management is scared of Facebook and Twitter already…what’s the value of social networking?” As I see it, social networking in SharePoint Server 2010 serves the following functions, each of which varies in importance depending on the scenario and the organization.

Content Findability

SharePoint tracks how you interact with content. The fact that you’ve interacted with or tagged a piece of content—say, a Word document—is a social behavior that can be valuable later on. If I’m searching using a set of key words, and my results set is hundreds, or even thousands of documents, social distance and social behavior can influence the weight of a result, so that the document that you tagged or worked on will “bubble up” to the top because you’re my colleague. Additionally, if I’m following your social feed, I can see that you tagged a document, which might make me more likely to look at it, too. Whether through feed or search, the social behavior of users in your enterprise makes relevant content easier to locate.

People Search or Expertise Search

In larger, more complex organizations, it can be difficult to figure out who knows about a topic in which you’re interested or a project with which you’re involved. SharePoint’s very rich and easily extensible profile properties let information about your knowledge, experience, skillsets, and interests be findable, so I can find you, not just content. For some organizations, people search is of critical importance.

Virtual Water Cooler

As enterprises become more geographically distributed, and more employees work remotely and virtually, the personal connection between them is lost. SharePoint My Sites provide a phenomenal way to reconnect dispersed users. Employees can share pictures, stories, status, and discuss topics that aren’t necessarily directly related to business activities, but which do directly impact employee morale and loyalty. Just last month I worked on a project for a client whose “Top 5” needs for SharePoint included a virtual water cooler functionality to support personal interaction between remote employees.

Communities of Practice

One of my first enterprise collaboration projects was for a client who needed to build communities of practice for specific applications—to bring together users, power users, and support personnel around tools. It would be so much easier to build that, today, with SharePoint 2010, which includes the plumbing for “organizational profiles,” in addition to user profiles. Organizational profiles support collaborating around a topic, a project, or a tag. I could, for example, go to the “SharePoint” site and see every bit of content that has been tagged “SharePoint,” and connect with others who are interested in SharePoint. Unfortunately, the organizational profiles feature set isn’t fully baked—you need third-party or custom development to achieve it in this version of SharePoint. I can’t help but imagine it will be fleshed out in SharePoint 15.

Knowledge Capture

Recently, I’ve run into companies that are facing problems with turnover. Whether due to a downward economy (layoffs), an upward economy (employees leaving for better opportunities) or changing workforce demographics (baby boomers retiring), every employee that leaves your company takes with them valuable knowledge about how things work, and some of that knowledge will be lost forever if you don’t find a way to capture it. Every employee that enters your organization has to reinvent the wheel to some extent. Social tools—even things as simple as blogs and wikis—provide an easy way to capture what employees do, what they know, and how they get their jobs done.

All of these value propositions for SharePoint 2010 share a common thread. SharePoint has been, to date, primarily a content repository, and a platform to collaborate around content. But there’s only so much that’s stored in content—you can index it but you still don’t know everything that’s important about it. Also important is how people perceive that content (tags), how they interact with that content, and how they work with each other and within the organization. Social behavior is very important, because in the end an enterprise is nothing without its people. We’ve just been missing a way to uncork the power of our people until now.

What are the Effects of Social Networking?

I’d like to conclude by addressing the “Fear of Facebook” factor. Every company I’ve encountered is worried about what will happen with social networking. Let me save you thousands of dollars in consulting and months of pain by offering these observations from my experience:

•     Users won’t abuse social networking any more than they abuse anything else in your organization. It’s just a tool. They’ll do with these tools the same things they’re already doing around the water cooler, through email, and on their phones. Don’t over-think or overestimate the risks of social networking.

•     If you don’t provide the tools for your users to connect with each other, with your customers, and with your vendors, they’ll find the tools on their own. They want to get their jobs done efficiently, and they’ll find a way to do them. Better to be ahead of them, to govern their use of tools, and to capture the knowledge they have. Don’t over-restrict your users.

•     Despite the fact that I’ve told you these things, you’ll probably over-think and over-restrict, and implement processes that monitor or moderate the use of social tools, particularly blogs and such. Every company I’ve seen do that eventually realizes that employees “get” what they should and shouldn’t do. The employees that abuse social networking are the same ones that abused other tools—and social networking might actually help you spot them sooner than you would otherwise. But the vast majority of your employees will do the right thing with the right tools. And those companies that have implemented tools and processes to monitor and moderate? They give those tools and processes up pretty fast.

I can’t emphasize to you just how incredible social networking can be in an enterprise, when implemented correctly. It’s nowhere near as risky as your management probably thinks. The biggest risk, in my opinion, is waiting too long and losing control of the opportunity.