Microsoft's getting into social networking. Yes, you read that right. But it's not what you think.
This won't be a simple MySpace or Facebook knockoff. Instead, Microsoft will be announcing a series of communities focused around worker roles, starting today with a curiously as-yet-unnamed (users will choose among three names in a vote) site for finance professionals. Later in the year, Microsoft plans to announce communities for sales and marketing professionals and operations workers, possibly followed by human resources and information technology.
"We've been thinking for a while about, is there a desire or a need for communities where businesspeople can connect, not on technology issues, but on business issues," said Craig Dewar, director of community marketing for Microsoft.
The big question is why people would go to Microsoft for professional social networking? There already are places like LinkedIn or even upcoming platforms such as IBM's Connections that will allow companies and industries to build their own social networking sites. Social networks might be a me-too technology these days, but a network's only as good as its users. Experts might go somewhere like CFO Magazine for social networking, but Dewar said Microsoft looked around and found that none of the finance magazines' Web sites had any such community features.
To bring folks in, the company will do some evangelism with existing Microsoft customers and send community invites to all the finance professionals at this week's Convergence conference for Dynamics users. Dewar said the main draw lies in software, which can be used as launch pads to enroll new users. Microsoft's newest version of its Dynamics GP enterprise resource planning software includes a feature that acts as a link to the online community, and the company intends to soon include that capability in the rest of its ERP and customer relationship management products. Eventually, Dewar said, Microsoft's ERP and CRM software will bring in more community functions, say, by serving relevant blogs right to the desktop.
That could bring in a bunch of people, but it carries inherent risk that community members could use the site as a forum for Dynamics bashing instead of figuring out, as Dewar brought up in an introductory forum post, "best practices for consolidated reporting across multiple companies." Another risk is that users find these communities a thinly veiled Microsoft advertisement. For example, the finance community in its current form includes "articles" on how to use Microsoft applications to do forecasting and analyze profitability.
But Microsoft said its communities also will include personal profiles, user blogs, online forums, and the abilities to tag and rate important blogs and forum posts. Users will be able to create public or private "working groups" that will act as a place to come to create topical blogs or talk about certain projects, software, or even issues such as how finance professionals can better communicate with the marketing staff.
Future versions of the sites will be even richer. Members whose blogs and forum posts are highly rated by others may get a formal tag as someone with a good reputation. Personal profiles will be highly customizable in look and feel. Users, who enter information like job role, professional interests, geography, company size and market into their profiles, will be able to see a visual cloud of users whose profiles most closely match their own. Wikis are another possibility; Dewar said they could be perhaps jump-started by automatically picking up the highest-rated forum content.