Community Management in the Age of Social Networking

by Willy Leichter
Director, Product and Solutions Marketing, Axway

The topic of VANs is interesting because it’s really a pre-Internet, analog, community-networking model that actually still has a lot of legs today. Obviously, we’re seeing that the old 1970s and 80s hard-wired, business-phone-line network for VANs—that they were created on—is being replaced technically. But also I think there is both an interesting explosion of the concept of communities and a convergence of some interesting trends here.

VANs continue to serve an important function for a lot of organizations by connecting you to a community, to a trading group, to an organization, making things more efficient, enabling more collaboration, more standardization—all of those good things. The problem is the legacy model—and we still haven’t inherited this whole telco model into the internet now with a lot of VAN providers—is too limited, too expensive, too much of a single-purpose infrastructure. It really doesn’t allow the kind of ad hoc, person-to-person interaction that is becoming more and more prevalent in a lot of business interactions on the Internet.

I kind of like the analogy the hard-wired, landline phone at home. Most people still have it. They’ll be around forever, I’m sure, in some form. But a lot of people are thinking, “Gee, this hardwire into my house is awfully limiting. It doesn’t give me mobility. It’s not really where I am or what I use for ninety percent of my communication now.” It’s to the point where a lot of people are getting rid of their landline. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not making phone calls anymore.

The fundamental purpose of VANs is stronger than ever. If you think of communities at large, we’re seeing this explosion of online communities, a lot through social networking, where you can leverage the community you’re in, the connections you have, which can expand now infinitely in terms of who you connect with, how you can interact, and all of these new applications and ways that people can communicate and interact. It’s the community concept, or the VAN concept, on steroids, almost.

What I think is interesting is that we’re really starting to see some convergence between business communities and social networking communities. I think the initial reaction of a lot of businesses when Facebook hit the scene was, “This is just for teenagers. It doesn’t affect me.” But I think most businesses realize now it’s almost inseparable from what people do day to day, the way they interact with their friends, with colleagues, with people they know. They don’t draw these distinctions.

Now, you have many different things that you do, so you can have business communities, you can have personal communities. But more and more people want to manage their own identity, their own profile, in a consolidated way. So whatever they’re conducting, whatever they’re transacting, or whoever they’re interacting with, there is really only one person out there essentially. And, in a strange way, the authorization or the validation of who you are is based on who you’re connected to.

And if you extrapolate that a little to the business community, I think we’re starting to see examples where specifically social networking is being used for business. A lot of companies have their own groups on, say, Facebook or Linkedin, where they’re actually reaching out to customers. But I think we’re going to start to see the same concepts of communities and networking in a much broader sense quickly penetrate the business world and eventually supplant what’s been done traditionally with VANs.

It doesn’t mean there won’t be specialized sites. There always will be. But more and more companies are not going to want to build hardwired, infrastructure-type things for automating transactions and being part of a trading community. They’re going to want to leverage communities that they’re a part of, connections that they already have, their validation, their authorization based on who they work with. And all of this sits almost identically to the way most social networks work today. And they’re going to want to be able to eventually build and establish trust with other people through these much more complex communities that they’re a part of.

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