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Discovering, and leveraging, your company's professional network

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Over the last few years, most of us have learned to use such personal social networks as Facebook and LinkedIn to represent our personal business networks and to leverage them on an ongoing basis. Whether we use them sporadically (for a job search) or regularly, we can gain huge productivity and effectiveness benefits from them. But professional networks are not limited to individuals. Companies and other professional entities have their own networks as well, and they can be leveraged to achieve many of the same benefits we gain from our personal social networks. Ask yourself: How large is your company's professional network? Does it extend beyond your employees to your customers and partners? Does it include your employees' individual professional networks? If so, when employees leave your company, do they take their professional networks with them or do they remain as a company asset? And how are you monetizing this extended company network? I see a great opportunity for companies to better leverage these extended professional networks in a way that improves the effectiveness of customer acquisition, retention and expansion. Let's start by asking what is a “company professional network”? I define the term “professional network” as a relationship tree, like Facebook or LinkedIn, not a communication platform like Twitter or Yammer. By this definition, the opportunity to create and leverage the collective professional networks of individuals within a company is immense. It is the sum of the professional networks of its employees (if they are willing to share their networks with co-workers), plus the networks of customers and all their current and previous employees, as well as the network of business associates and partners (board members, advisers, friends of the company, etc.). Personal networks require that both nodes of the network agree to be connected to each other, but many business connections are one-way—your company is connected to customers because they chose your products, but you're not going to send each one of them a LinkedIn invite. So personal networks can't represent the most common type of company network connection, which is one-directional. Also, a personal network leaves the company when an employee leaves. Companies need to retain their networks; a relationship with a customer does not end when the person who created or managed that relationship leaves the company. Managing the network requires tracking and updating it as it grows and evolves, as well as making the network available for employees to leverage. Documenting and tracking the company network requires building a network graph that connects these disparate types of networks. Then it needs to be usable by employees through effective filtering and integration into such existing work-flow systems as CRM, marketing automation and customer care. Companies have “implicit” networks, while personal networks such as LinkedIn represent “explicit” networks. Employees of a company are part of the network, even if they are not explicitly connected to each other. Investors, customers and partners are part of a company network even if every employee is not explicitly connected to every investor, customer or partner. Companies hire new employees all the time. Some come with rich personal networks, others with minimal ones. Companies that have created a company network can make it available to all employees on their first day, which speeds ramp-up time and allows even the most junior employees to leverage their employer's full network. A strong company professional network will benefit every employee at the company, but it will benefit customer-facing employees (sales, marketing, customer management) the most. Umberto Milletti is CEO of social CRM company InsideView Inc. (www.insideview.com). He can be reached at umberto.milletti@insideview.com>.

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