I suppose I’ve kept Twitter at an arms length for quite a while. But as I’ve been busy researching how to extend the intranet to reach different audiences I started to take a closer look at it. I have to say that a great starting point for making sense of all this twittering business is Commoncraft’s video: Twitter in Plain English. But doing is the first step to believing, so I’ve recently started twittering, and was surprised to find myself on a new learning curve in online interaction. I’m used to email and IM (they’re comfortable!) and to blogging – but this is a different way of interacting online. I saw a description of it recently as being the “water cooler for the internet age” – the place where (in a business setting) a whole lot of connections happen and knowledge exchange goes on that wouldn’t usually occur in our more formal channels. It’s the place where I’d chat with someone and exchange the “I’m doing…”, “I’m thinking…”, “I’m looking for…”, “Did you hear about…” etc.
Doing may be the first step in believing, but seeing some benefit is the real clincher! As it happens I saw that a colleague I’m following in another country was tweeting about an intranet topic that I’m particularly interested in, and was able to connect with him to get some more information. Not rocket science, but I wouldn’t have had this opportunity without the “water cooler” effect online. It’s a small (if encouraging) example of benefit, but Twitter stills feels like something else I have to go and do, rather than it being part of the natural flow of my day – so far!
It seems that the potential for using Twitter in an enterprise environment is getting recognised and talked about quite a lot, here are some of the uses I’ve come across or thought of so far:
- Quick updates between virtual team members. One example I’ve come across is technicians out on the road: “Instead of techs calling in when jobs are running over time, they send a simple ‘tweet’ that gets relayed through to other techs, and to manager who can then schedule resources more efficiently.” Rather than having to call individual technicians or drivers (for example) sending a single tweet would be a more efficient way to update the whole team at once.
- The “water cooler” effect. Connecting people who wouldn’t have met otherwise, building relationships, sharing knowledge. It could also cut across organisational hierarchies in a way that the traditional water cooler can’t achieve. It may also mean that the home worker population can increase without loosing either the value or the fun of the “water cooler” connections.
- Pop-up alerts for frontline staff – a Twitter-esque application could be a good way of getting quick alerts to frontline staff, with links back to the intranet for more information where appropriate. Using something like Tweetburner, communicators could track how many people click follow up links. It would also enable an instant feedback loop from the frontline which would be great, especialy during a product launch.
- Connecting people around a particular subject – for example, using Tweetbeep I can keep an eye on any tweets relating to intranets. Within a company, I could watch particular topics of interest, project-related terms, or even updates from a particular department such as HR. While the news page on the intranet may offer a more formal stream of information, using something like Twitterfeed could enable communicators to pull together formal news updates, blog posts, and quick alerts into one stream of information – with a built-in instant feedback loop. And using something like Yahoo Pipes, feeds can be translated into different languages.
- An easy way for remote employees to log key information – for example, the time and expense tracking software from Harvest has integrated Twitter to enable employees to log a time entry or an expense while out on the road. The “powered by Twitter” mashup possibilities here are endless…
- To connect conference attendees (and those who couldn’t make it!) – Twitter could be useful both before and during the conference to help shape the agenda and provide live feedback, ideas and questions during. Taking this a bit further… there’s an interesting article about an attendee at Google’s OpenSocial conference last year sending live Tweets to his followers as it unfolded – what happened next was that he started taking questions from his Twitter group and relaying them to the speaker live. With attendance to big employee conferences generally shrinking due to belt tightening, how about connecting employees not in the room with live tweets of what’s happening in the room, and bringing their questions in?
- Informal research or opinion polls – I like the idea of using Twitter for informal research or to gather opinions around a subject. It could be used by HR or even a manager with a local team to get a quick “temperature check” of employee reactions to particular issues, as well as ideas, questions and feedback.
There are of course also lots of examples surfacing of companies using Twitter to keep in touch with customers (for example, product updates, offers and customer service) as well as it’s potential uses for crisis management and discovery. And with commercial uses of Twitter growing, there is speculation about whether they will eventually charge for business users, although how they will distinguish business and personal use isn’t really clear. I’ve also come across a few mentions of companies building their own: Jitter (although I don’t know if Janssen-Cilag have taken this beyond an initial trial), Prologue, and Trillr (which Coremedia have developed and been using it internally, and are now looking for companies to participate in their experimental platform).
So is Twitter a serious contender for business use, or just another tool that threatens to push us over the information overload edge? The jury’s out for now. I’ll be exploring this topic further, along with other means of extending the intranet to reach remote audiences, in a research paper for IBF members later this year. In the meantime, we are twittering at IBF and you can follow us @ibf.