Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

By Dennis D. McDonald

In Should You Make or Buy Your Social Network? I wrote about some of the technology-related decisions that are needed when an organization adopts online social networking. Whether you decide to (a) install and run software to support your own social networking application, (b) use an externally hosted service, or (c) to develop your own software, you still have to decide how you will engage with the community — or communities — you intend to involve in your strategy.

Will you “piggyback” on an existing system (such as Facebook, MySpace, or Linkedin) to begin creating the group(s) you intend to work with? Or will you “build your own” community afresh by starting with a service that gives you more control over community membership?

One way to think about these choices is in terms of the relationships you want to tap into, e.g.,

  1. Relationships among individuals inside your organization.
  2. Relationships among individuals outside your organization.
  3. Relationships between (1) and (2).

In many cases it is the number and type of boundaries among the different groups listed above that will impact the ease with which you can take advantage of social networking technologies. These boundaries — or “edges” —  impact things like:

  1. Convincing a person who already belongs to one online social network to join the one your organization is sponsoring.
  2. Convincing the person who belongs to no online social networks to join yours.
  3. Deciding what to do when target individuals don’t want to join your — or anyone’s — online social network.

These considerations are in addition to the technical issues involved with enabling people to communicate across system boundaries using more than just plain email.

It’s easy to see that there will be instances when it makes great sense to “piggyback” on someone else’s system. With existing systems the front-end work of getting a person to join has already been made and the existence of boundaries separating various groups and subgroups is minimized.

That has to be weighed against the possibility that a “pre-existing community” does not include 100% of the individuals whose involvement you are targeting. Generally, the larger and more diverse the communities are you want to involve, the higher the probability that an existing online network will not already be in place across all groups.

If that’s the case, you have to assess how much effort you want to put into getting people to join “someone else’s network.”

Another boundary you need to consider is the boundary between your own employees and people outside the organization. Let’s say that you are one of those enlightened companies that already employs tools such as social bookmarks, expertise location, “people pages,” internal blogs, and collaborative workspaces. Let’s also assume that eventually you want to “open up” relations between your employees and outside users (e.g., customers, vendors, distributors, other supply chain members) in order to foster innovation and closer business ties.  Questions like these arise:

  • Do you extend use of your internal systems to outside users?
  • Do you establish a new but separately managed network?
  • Do you “hook into” the numerous networks that already exist out there?

Granted, it is the existence of so many cross-boundary network interfaces that proposed approaches such as OpenSocial are attempting to overcome.  But we live today in the real world where such standards do not yet exist and where “viral” and word of mouth impacts on network adoption are impacted by the number and complexity of the boundaries that need to be crossed.

Also important — at least for me — is that for many of the “communities” I am involved with the level of understanding and use of online social networking is low. Yet, I need to engage with members of all groups, so I find myself frequently using “traditional” networking tools such as telephone, face to face meetings, and — believe it or not — snail mail. That’s not a problem but when scaled up to enterprise level such considerations have practical time and cost consequences.

It’s because of these considerations that, when considering a business strategy that incorporates communication and relationship development based on social media and social networking, that only about 25% or so (my guesstimate) of the effort of developing and implementing the strategy will involve actual technology. The majority of effort (as measured in terms of people time, primarily) will be related to business process change rather than technology change. In addition, the number of boundaries that exist and that need to be “bridged” corresponds to “fixed costs” while the actual number of people within each community drives the “variable costs.”

In summary, the “make versus buy” decision  regarding adoption of online social networking involves both technology and non-technology decisions, with non-technology decisions (and process changes) driving the majority of costs. Complexity and cost will be driven both by the sizes of the communities involved and by the number of different communities. The extent to which training and infrastructure costs can be off-loaded or shifted to other participants and systems will be dependent on many factors including the size, number, and complexity of the different communities that need to be involved.

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