One of the interesting things about Microsoft is that the company is so big that it is quite possible to be working on similar ideas to other groups in the company without significantly exchanging information or cross pollinating ideas. Earlier this week, I was at a cross-divisional information sharing event where I got to see where a lot of products were going with integrating the ideas from social software trends on the Web into their products.

One of the presentations I was most impressed with was the one forthe Knowledge Network for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. This is a product that integrates with enables people at a company to

  • Discover who knows what and who knows whom within an organization. Quickly and easily locate people by subject expertise or social relationships with key contacts or companies.
  • Simplify creating automated user profiles for each member of the network. Knowledge Network automates the discovery and sharing of undocumented knowledge and relationships for each member in the network. The user-customizable automated profile is secure and requires member approval before it is shared.
  • Effectively search and pinpoint individuals. Knowledge Network provides the ability to connect with internal and external contacts, and calculates the shortest social distance between any two people in the network.

The problem of discovering people with subject matter expertise is a big one at a company like Microsoft with over 70,000 employees. How do you track down the best person to send feedback about Windows Live Spaces or ask a question about some of the idiosyncracies of C#? Knowledge Network attempts to address this in two ways. Recently I was on a mail thread where some folks suggested building a database of employees and annotating it with tags that identified certain attributes or skills of these employees such as the products they worked on, technologies they were experts at and so on. People quickly pointed out that asking people to create a profile of themselves on an internal site then tag themselves is a hassle that few would undertake. What many people on the mail thread [including myself] didn't realize is that Knowledge Network is actually targetted at exactly this scenario. To get over the boot strapping problem, the Knowledge Network client application indexes your email inbox and extracts two sets of information from it (a) a graph of your professional relationships based on who you exchange mail with regularly and (b) a set of keywords that describes subject matter your regularly communicate about. This information can then be uploaded to your company intranet's "People Search" feature where people can then search for you by tags keywords and then once they find you can then ask "Show Me How I Am Connected to this Person" which uses information gleaned from the org chart and email chains to figure out how your social networks overlap. This is seriously cool stuff. 

Although I had heard of the Knowledge Network product I haven't been deeply familiar with it which seems really unfortunate given that a lot of the kinds of social networking features I've been thinking about for Windows Live would benefit from the ideas I've seen implemented by the Knowledge Network team and Sharepoint. If only there was a way I can search for and browse people working on "social networking" technologies at Microsoft so I don't miss information like this in future. :)  I wonder if I can subscribe to an RSS feed of "People Search" results so I can keep track of when new people that have been tagged as "social networking" enter the system (i.e. join the company or start working on a new product). I need to investigate or propose this as a feature if it isn't already there. 

By the way, the Knowledge Network folks have a team blog at which has a lot of informative posts about their product such as What is Knowledge Network and Why Should You Care? and How KN Integrates with SharePoint. Definitely add their blog to your news reader if you are interested in social networking within the enterprise.