Over the past two years I’ve been involved in designing and demonstrating enterprise social across a number of sectors and geographies. In this Facebook age there’s always excitement around the discussion aspects of the software — chatter among employees drives increased engagement and buyers instantly recognise this. I’ve noticed that the least sexy requirement is often the one at the cornerstone of the business case: the ability to find people within the organisation.

With a bit of reflection, it makes perfect sense. Small teams all know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and experience base and when team members draw on each other they are able to achieve all the benefits of working together. In larger organisations it can be hard to tap into this. Very, very hard.

Friend finder

Admittedly there should be no surprise. The “consumer” networks (Facebook, LinkedIn and the like) rely on virality and have invested significant sums into friend finder features. These sites aren’t connecting you so that you get a warm fuzzy feeling about reconnecting with your third grade gym partner – their business models are driven by growing the size of their walled gardens.

Consumer social: More friends = more connections = more users = more revenue opportunities.

Within organisations this is less relevant. My company has about 160 people and we’re all already users of our internal enterprise social platform. Getting more people onto the service is irrelevant, everyone is already on it. Getting more people connecting on the service is where the value lies.

Enterprise social: More connections = more teamwork = doing more with the same resource base = driving more profit for the business.

Four degrees of People Finder

In the design process, I typically draw an onion diagram with four layers of People Finder.

1. Named search – I’m looking for “Bob Smith”
Not much to describe – type a person’s name and the system returns results. Ideally there is predictive auto-complete and results include fuzzy matches “Bob Smith could be… Bob Smithe, Bob Smyth, etc.”. Users are able to quickly access a rich user profile for any of the results returned.

Most larger organisations already have this in some guise or another – often driven through their email and calendaring infrastructure. The biggest con to this approach is that it requires knowing who you’re looking for. As soon as the company is bigger than 50 or 60 people and split over more than one location this becomes well nigh impossible.

2. Indexed search – Looking for someone who has worked on Project XYZ
To my mind, the best enterprise social implementations blend social features alongside transactional features. Typically the platform contains some relevant structured data around the organisation and each person’s role in the organisation.

In my company, we’re all assigned to projects which, in turn, have clients. The search field should allow users to search against the structured data. On our platform I can enter “Acme Industries” and it will return all relevant projects where Acme was a client. Relevant information points will be as varied as there are companies out there.

3. Folksonomies – Looking for someone who has worked on a project tagged with “technology”
Somewhere between indexed searching against structured data and searching freeform text lies the tag based folksonomy. Some years ago Flickr taught us the power of developing folksonomies. Twitter then popularised inline hashtagging and tagging moved from power user to mainstream. Users can freely tag things with relevant topics. Items with the same tags are returned against relevant searches.

Tagging can be applied on any number of levels – discussion posts, photos, projects, clients, documents, etc. – wherever something is being saved a tag can be applied against it.

4. Contextual search – Looking for someone who talks about gardening
The beauty of enterprise social is the conversation: employee engaging and discussing on any number of topics in a sort-of global watercooler. Not all employees are online at the same time though, so the conversation may leave some people behind. Or it may happen that I’m not interested in doobleflidgets today, but tomorrow a clients asks me about them and I need to find out what my organisation knows.

Contextual People Finder allows me to search and returns wherever doobleflidgets have come up in wall posts, discussion groups, documents and maybe even (non-private) IM conversation. It allows me to find out who posted about doobleflidget research so that I can quickly get a sense of who to speak to in my organisation.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know

People Finder straddles the divide between “traditional” IT services (email and associated infrastructure) and “web 2.0” services. It is the most requested feature for the first iteration of mobile apps because clients instinctively understand the value of connecting people.

Many clients who chose to avoid Facebook and the like immediately engage with People Finder when we walk through mockups. Time and time again I’ve watched sceptics intuitively make the jump from “Facebook within my organisation? Are you having a laugh?” to “Facebook within my organisation – I can see where you’re going with that.”

Ultimately, it still boils down to who you know. The opportunity provided by enterprise social is to make it much easier to know the right people.