At the risk of being slightly self-incriminating, any diligent office worker within a certain age bracket would probably admit to occasionally venturing onto Facebook to indulge in a little nonwork-related social networking, even during working hours. Far from decrying such habits as hampering workplace productivity, Charles Armstrong, CEO for Trampoline Systems (www.trampolinesystems.com), believes that worker familiarity with and affinity for the ubiquitous social networking site actually enhances their abilities to complete their job functions effectively … once they employ Trampoline Systems’ new product, SONAR Dashboard. Introduced on Tuesday during the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, SONAR Dashboard applies the familiar Facebook schema to an enterprise environment. The company alternatively bills the product as "Facebook for the enterprise" and as the first "intelligent" social network for business.
As with any social network, SONAR Dashboard aims to connect users who are geographically, hierarchically, or professionally remote from one another but who might be able to make meaningful contributions to each others’ work. Armstrong provides an illustration: "The real value comes when I’m working on a project and I’m hit with, for instance, a compliance problem. I don’t know anyone who can help me, so I do a search on Dashboard and immediately get a bunch of people—whoever they are, wherever they are—who have the expertise that I need. SONAR picks up on individual expertise and dynamically builds up an organic taxonomy. Expertise search is something that the industry has been trying to crack for a long time. Our approach to doing this through a combination of content analysis and network factors."
The idea behind combining content analysis with network factors to build SONAR Dashboard’s capabilities for discovering expertise grew, interestingly enough, out of Armstrong’s prior work as an anthropologist in the tiny English village of St. Agnes. Armstrong says that humans use a combination of semantic triggers and social networks to solve problems in their everyday lives. "If I’m a fisherman on St. Agnes," he says, "I probably don’t know much about farming, but if I receive a piece of information about seeds or pollination—even if I don’t completely understand the information—it will have hit a certain semantic trigger, which will affect how I process that piece of information. So I know to seek out the village farmer to help me solve my problem."
SONAR Dashboard provides employees with individual profiles, a newsfeed of network activity, and a contacts list. User profiles are automatically updated through integration with employees’ everyday work (such as email) via Trampoline’s SONAR Server, which analyzes the social networks, information flows, and expertise hidden within corporate information.
Armstrong stresses that SONAR Dashboard’s automation capabilities ensure maximum effectiveness to businesses that implement it. He questions the value of products that require employees to maintain and update their own profiles, because many employees may not be inherently predisposed to regularly update their information on a social network. "Facebook is a self-selecting community," he says. "Some people are into it, some aren’t. It’s a leisure activity. Any assumption that in an enterprise of 70,000 people you’ll have everyone choosing to maintain an updated profile seems unreasonable to me. Maybe 5% to 10% of employees will put any information in at all, and hardly anyone will keep it up-to-date enough to deliver value unless it’s strongly regulated." SONAR Dashboard seeks to circumvent that obstacle through updating employees’ profiles automatically.
Blogosphere reactions to the announcement reflected a measure of skepticism about whether all business employees would be comfortable with the notion that SONAR Dashboard will automatically make all their work-related information as accessible as Facebook makes their personal information. "Of course, the whole thing sounds like a ‘Big Brother’ nightmare," Mike Butcher wrote on the blog TechCrunch, "but in fact, users can completely control what they share with the rest of the company. The system regularly emails the user with terms [that] are being published to the rest of the company and the user then switches them on and off. So users can filter out too general topics like ‘lunch’ or more private issues like their email chats with their mistress/toyboy—assuming they are dumb enough to do that over work email."
Looking forward, Armstrong and Trampoline believe that the kind of Web 2.0 technologies embodied by SONAR Dashboard are gaining credence as appropriate enterprise solutions. "We’re at this intriguing point where social computing is crossing the barrier from the early adopter phase to the first phase of mainstream adoption," he says. "For us, we’re really very excited about the possibilities to get Dashboard deployed in as many different kinds of industries as possible."
SONAR Dashboard is an addition to SONAR Suite, Trampoline’s 360-degree enterprise social computing platform. Trampoline’s clients include the Raytheon Co., a large global management consultancy, and the U.K. Foreign Office.