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Social Connector ushers Microsoft into social networking tool fray

Twitter, schwitter: We’ve all been overexposed to social networking tools and news. But good, bad or ugly, Microsoft’s inclusion of LinkedIn as an officially supported plug-in for Outlook is a turning point. Social networking is no longer limited to early adopters — far from it — and it’s not something IT departments can ignore. If conservative Microsoft is putting it into ultra-conservative Outlook, you know you should be paying attention.

Social Connector, first discussed in November, allows users to read emails and view the senders’ most recent social networking activities. For now, people using Office 2003, 2007 and the beta versions of Office 2010 can view only recent LinkedIn activity — and users aren’t able to push information from Outlook to LinkedIn. Microsoft said the Facebook and MySpace plug-ins will be ready for download when Office 2010 goes on sale in June.

Social Connector isn’t perfect. It has limited capabilities compared to Xobni and Thunderbird, which have richer plug-in systems and a wider reach than Microsoft’s tepid attempt has (for now). And yes, some criticize Microsoft for being behind the times, waiting years before taking the step to include social networking at all. But that’s exactly why you should pay attention to this development: The fact that Microsoft is now including social networking in its flagship communication project sends a very clear signal. Microsoft is often behind the curve on tech (Vista, anyone?) so when the company does jump on board, it’s probably time to consider the technology standard-issue.

So, maybe it’s time for the excitement around social networking to fade: Tools like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are not all good or all bad, but they are definitely here to stay. And social networking is a better way of doing some kinds of work, such as finding connections you have at a given company, in a given role or in a particular area of expertise.

But while Microsoft’s finally hopped on board, too many IT departments still maintain the school-marm mentality: Ignore it and push it underground, or regulate it in a superficial, published social networking policy.

Preliminary results from a Forrester Research social media survey show that, of the 93% of respondents who access social media from work, almost half work for companies that don’t have a social media policy. Additionally, 38% report that their employer does not sanction access to social media, but they still use it.

Why aren’t IT departments outlining a social networking policy — possibly helping sales organizations in finding new leads, or HR in scouting new talent — including tools many may not know about?

Social networking is a business trend that can bring value, but you have to know how to use it. For the IT department, it’s less about fighting it (blocking sites, prohibiting its use on company time) and all about making sure the business gets the maximum benefit company-wide, as opposed to a few siloed success stories.

So, get started on that social networking roadmap strategy and train users on how to use it — because if good ol’ Microsoft has caught on, what’s your excuse?

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