Social business

A young company is helping funnel the power of social networking into profits.

1 November 2010
Photo by Suzanne Gell.Alison Jacobson, Firestring, believes social media can help businesses gain a better understanding of their customers.

Marketing guru Peter Drucker once observed that more business decisions happen over lunch or dinner than any other location, but that there are no MBA courses on the subject.

The business world can be surprisingly clueless about taking advantage of normal human interaction, and the one wave that everyone wants to catch today is social networking. Enter Firestring, a local startup with knowledge management roots that offers a social networking platform that aims to capture knowledge and experience in something more tangible than memories of conversations around the water cooler.

Founder and MD Alison Jacobson has a BSc Honours in Molecular Biology from UCT, but has since developed experience in the fields of e-learning, knowledge management and social media. As of the beginning of last year, Firestring has been working with local partners to bring the power of social media to the workplace, not by encouraging employers to unblock Facebook, but by using its own platform to capture conversations and the knowledge that’s already there.

“Businesses have challenges and problems in which social solutions might play a role,” says Jacobson. “We’re not just offering social technology for its own sake; we’re saying all it means is that there might be a better understanding of a particular problem within that customer.”

What you get for your money is a private social networking platform, Wildfire Social Network, which includes an integrated event management suite for conferences, clubs and events. Wildfire also integrates with Firestring’s custom loyalty engine, Captivate, which awards points to members of closed communities based on their interaction within the social network, their attendance at affiliated events and on the basis of their purchases.

Technical director Tal Nathan, a veteran of e-learning, says the enterprise Java-based Wildfire has two delivery models.

“The first is the software as a service model, which is hosted on our servers, is very quick and has no infrastructure impact on the organisation. Or we can do the on-site where we will integrate with active directory or SharePoint or any other requirement. There’s a lot of digital communication in an organisation that isn’t captured. In order to plug those leaks, our system has to integrate with existing solutions, whether that’s authentication, portals or content management. We’re not competing with knowledge management vendors but rather working harmoniously with them.”

Jacobson says Firestring can’t simply adopt the big bang approach.

...In organisations there is generally an old-school attitude that needs to be addressed. Alison Jacobson, Firestring.

“While we don’t rule out the bubbling up of adoption from the grass roots, in organisations there is generally an old-school attitude that needs to be addressed. When you work with larger organisations, you need to focus on the values and benefits to the business user. You can’t just roll things out without project-specific approaches and proper change management. Young people are early adopters, of course, but it’s an interesting counter-statistic that the fastest-growing adopters of Facebook are women over 65. When we go into a business and we sit with a group of people of differing ages, we ask the older ones whether they’re using Facebook and LinkedIn. We don’t ask the under-30s because it’s a given.”

Will business-based social networking change the face of knowledge management? Jacobson is optimistic based on what she’s seen so far.

“We all come from a knowledge management background. We’ve worked very closely with a lot of advertising and marketing people and we’ve seen what’s worked and what hasn’t worked.”

And she has sober advice for other startups.

“Be realistic: halve your estimates of revenue and double your projected expenses and you’ll be close to reality.”