Social networking tools such as Twitter and the emerging Google Wave web application are taking individuals and organizations to the frontiers of real-time communication and collaboration. The technology has the potential to make it easier to discover and share information, interact with others, and decide what to buy or do. But the key word is “potential”: Social networking’s evolution is still in its early stages. What makes the current crop of services more promising than those that came before? What are the obstacles to further progress?

An expert panel debated these questions at the annual Supernova technology strategy conference, produced in partnership with Wharton and held last winter in San Francisco. The 2010 Supernova forum will be held this month in Philadelphia.

The panel at the San Francisco event was chaired by David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Appearing on the panel were: Anna-Christina Douglas, product marketing manager at Google; Laura Fitton, principal of Pistachio Consulting and co-author of Twitter for Dummies; Paul Lippe, founder and CEO of Legal OnRamp; Jason Shellen, founder and CEO of Thing Labs, and Deborah Schultz, a partner with the Altimeter Group. In addition, Google engineers were in the room demonstrating Google Wave by allowing the audience to post to the social networking service during the session; their comments appeared in real time on projection screens near the panelists.

Weinberger began the session by asking panelists what made the introduction of social networking tools different from previous technological endeavors to improve communication and collaboration. One significant issue discussed was how social networking compared with knowledge management (KM). KM systems first appeared on the scene about 20 years ago and once represented the frontier, embodying companies’ most innovative ideas for integrating internal access to disparate information in order to improve communication, collaboration and business processes.

KM systems were implemented through technologies such as web portals, e-mail networks, content management systems and business intelligence infrastructure. Web portals, which were probably the most successful type of KM system, allow users to access a range of information — including reports, diagrams, catalogs and maintenance records — through one interface, rather than many. The portals also include external information supplied by business partners, government agencies and news sources. The technology automatically pulls information from the sources on demand so that users do not have to search for it manually.

Organizations employ KM systems to increase the value of their “intellectual capital.” However, the technology that supports KM systems has traditionally been difficult to develop and deploy. And the systems have not been universally successful at fostering real time collaboration between employees.

According to Shellen — who was part of the development teams for Google’s blogging program and Reader aggregator service — before social networking tools enabled quick and casual communication, many bloggers in corporate organizations had “some KM tool where you captured the knowledge in the tool’s silo and assigned all sorts of tags, folders and so on to it. You would then pass the blog to your manager for him or her to [learn from] what you were writing.” Shellen now heads Thing Labs, a San Francisco-based company that builds web-based software for sharing content. Social networking is easing some of the frustration users in many organizations have encountered with traditional KM systems. Through use of Twitter and other tools, more of the intellectual capital that KM systems once guarded is flowing freely, in real time, inside and outside organizations. If an employee needs to find expertise or share information, he or she doesn’t have to work within the rigid confines of a KM system, or even the confines of his or her organization. Instead, the employee can use social media to collaborate with others and to find answers more quickly and put relevant advice into practice.

While there are virtues to being able to communicate faster and more easily with social networking tools, panelists agreed that many organizations are struggling to adjust to the spontaneity and loss of control over information that comes with these tools. Concerned that organizations will eventually clamp down, Weinberger asked, “Will all the fun be stripped out of it? Will people become afraid to Tweet about things that are not strictly business-related?” Fitton, whose consulting firm focuses on helping companies to use micro-blogging in a business environment, suggested that companies may find the “messy and random serendipity” of Twitter and other social networks to be more efficient than lumbering KM systems and processes. “It brings an infusion of humanity to business,” she noted, who adding that, in her experiences at Pistachio Consulting, she has observed social networking having an impact on organizations by leveling management hierarchies, accelerating team-building across geographical locations, and improving mentoring. She stated that, in some cases, research to find human expertise that used to take many hours can happen much faster when queries are “flung out into the commons” to catch the attention of people who can provide answers more quickly.

Breadth vs. Depth

One of the advantages social networking tools have over KM systems, experts say, is that they simplify the process of obtaining information that would be useful to a business or employee. Tools such as Twitter provide a sort of “KM in the cloud,” allowing users to collaborate with each other and send messages to locate expertise without a company having to build and maintain a complex and expensive system to provide these capabilities internally. Social networking tools provide access to a broad population and employ simple, standardized, techniques to link users to information. But while social networking offers “an enormous amount of horizontal power,” Lippe said, “most of the hard collaboration problems are [solved] in vertical domains.” His firm, Legal OnRamp, is a collaboration platform for lawyers that allows information to be collected and shared virtually. Membership is by invitation only.

Lippe noted that, in the legal field, “there’s already a structure of knowledge, and most knowledge repositories and structures of the collaborative web have existed for multiple generations. So, the question is, how do you tap into them?” One core structure is attorney-client privilege, which Lippe said “has long preceded the information confidentiality and security regime that we all have now. It creates the structure of what you can and cannot share.” In the legal universe, he added, the messy serendipity of “horizontal” social networking cannot solve the hardest problems. “Lawyers have some questions they will answer for free, and others that they will figure out a way to get paid to answer.”

But the legal field’s communication sensitivities are “a very specific case,” Shellen pointed out. He noted that companies have built private social networks that feature protected blogs and search engines, and that these tools have proven effective in achieving new forms of collaboration while keeping information secure. Organizations are now incorporating use of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other social media into their daily routines, although they are in need of systems that can integrate and update the information being posted across all of the platforms. Shellen’s Thing Labs produces a reader called “Brizzly” that can be used to provide that service.

Lippe agreed that, despite the concerns he noted, large legal firms have an opportunity to use social networking to reestablish an intimacy with clients that they may have lost as the businesses grew larger and adjusted to structural changes in the industry. Lippe wrote recently on his Legal OnRamp blog that social networking tools can be used to save attorneys from “e-mail and attachment overload” and to “share existing knowledge or collaborate on new work [including] high volume work like commercial contracts and high complexity work like major case litigation.”

Office culture plays a significant role in what platform is used to share information, according to Schultz, a partner with the San Mateo, Calif.-based Altimeter Group, a technology strategy consulting firm. She noted that media companies, for example, may be a better fit for the horizontal nature of social networking. Schultz has been active in social media and networking for many years and has advised organizations ranging from startups to Fortune 50 companies, including Citibank and Procter & Gamble. At P&G, she built the P&G Social Media Lab, a program that enables the company to study the new dynamics of customer relationships in the age of social networking, and to use social media to break the mold of standard marketing measures and approaches that were geared toward older types of media. By encouraging brand managers to pay close attention to what customers were saying on community sites and other social networking places, Schultz said the Lab has helped P&G redefine how it engages, communicates with and uses marketing to influence consumers. “I see the tools making the roles we have more porous,” she stated. “As the consumer-driven nature of social networking moves into organizations, the collaboration potential of their use becomes more interesting.”

The use of tools like Twitter and Google Wave “definitely make a cultural statement,” said Douglas. The Google product marketing manager described how Google Wave has the capabilities for real-time, rolling conversation and collaboration among users that can include messages, links and attachments. Douglas noted that each conversation or “wave” can be modified with different editing and replying privileges so that enterprises can “exercise controls for how people want to lock down content.” The Google engineers demonstrated the application on the big screen behind the panelists; they showed how users can comment with links embedded in their messages and also load attachments.

Google Wave could be used effectively for private communication inside the firewall, as well as for working with a diverse community outside an organization, panelists said. Previous KM systems did not easily integrate communication with content management, making it difficult to use existing tools to access and manage information during real time conversations. Google Wave and other social networking tools offer the potential of a much tighter integration between communication and content, meaning conversations can include richer information sharing and easier references to content available across the organization.

To Shellen, the most interesting aspect to how social networking and collaboration tools are used is users’ ability to join ongoing conversations. He said his firm is currently building a “data set on top of that engagement, where we ask people to explain trending topics on Twitter.” The combination of immediate updates plus access to more in-depth information can enhance knowledge. “Tools like Twitter make me much smarter about you,” Schultz noted. “And the ‘you’ could be an entity or an individual.” She said that with the right kind of filtering, people can collaborate and make more effective use of the information available on social networks. “Companies can collaborate in real time with customers on products and even pricing.”

But does the 140-character limit for posts to Twitter enable engagement, or is it “a sign of triviality?” asked Weinberger. “Constraints breed invention,” replied Shellen. Douglas added that communities using Twitter, Google Wave and other tools are creating their own etiquette. Panelists agreed that both the creation of etiquette for particular conversations and the sheer ability to engage in several discussions at once would be difficult using blogs and older forms of web content sharing programs.

An Open and Vibrant World

Weinberger asked the panelists whether progress toward the real-time collaboration frontier is being driven by new technology or human needs. Speaking to the human needs, Fitton observed that social networking tools such as Twitter “help us overcome human isolation in a way that is not brand new but is happening on a different scale.” She said that the collaboration possible on the site is a question of “not just; ‘What are you doing?’ but, ‘What do we have in common?'” Fulfilling that need is what fascinates her about the phenomenon. Shellen added: “There’s accountability behind it; we now have modes of identity tied to short bursts of communication that are very much ‘you.'”

Schultz suggested that businesses could have achieved some of the same communications with earlier technology, “but not in real time, and not with the ability to participate using a device [such as a smartphone] we can take along with us in our pocket.” The ubiquity of smartphones and Internet access is changing the opportunities available to people. “Interactivity used to be about clicking on a website, but it turns out that was pretty passive,” she said. “We are now living up to what we said could be done.” That includes the potential for much richer customer communication that can offer links and embedded content as part of real-time conversations. “Active” dialogue between consumers and companies using social media, she added, break through the limits of traditional marketing, which relies on one-way communication and canned messaging.

To Douglas, what’s important is that the technology is allowing communication, collaboration and content sharing to become one and the same. “These tools bring human delight by breaking down barriers.” Lippe cautioned that the notion of someone Tweeting to get an answer in a legal setting is “fairly mind-boggling.” However, he agreed with the panelists that, even in the most vertically oriented industries, “the incredibly open and vibrant world represented by the social networking community” will be a catalyst for dynamic changes in the years to come.