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Companies warm up to social networks

Employers see benefits when office workers log on to Facebook and similar sites.

Scott Wallace

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At Serena Software, water-cooler talk has been replaced by Facebook chatter. Nearly everyone in the company, headquartered in Redwood City, Calif., uses the social-network site to hang out with fellow workers, access internal communications, or even challenge the Sydney branch to a movie quiz.

That includes the CEO. In a bid to create a sense of community within a worldwide company of 850 employees – many of them physically dispersed and acquired through a series of mergers – Serena's management created a "Facebook Friday" last November. An afternoon training session by Facebook experts – namely teenage sons and daughters – sparked ubiquitous social-network interaction inside the corporation. So much so, that Serena uses Facebook as its de-facto Intranet. The company also uses social networks to recruit new hires and market its Web 2.0 tools. Employees can even peer into the CEO's home life as a race-car driver.

It's a radical policy for a firm that, just a year ago, had banned the use of Instant Messenger.

"For a company that has a history of locking things down, it took a cultural shift for us to say, 'What if we open everything up?' " says Serena spokesman Kyle Arteaga. "We needed to find a way to build a community."

For many companies, social networks are deemed portals to lost productivity or, worse, gateways for security breaches by hackers. But some firms are taking a counterintuitive approach. A few are using existing social networks on the Web while others are building their own custom networks to maximize internal information flow and forge stronger links between individuals and departments. It's conceivable, some workplace analysts suggest, that every company will someday have its own social-network hub.

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