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Data Mining Your Desktop

HP Labs says the best office social networks require no effort.

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter work well because people enjoy sharing their lives with friends. At the office, however, social networking with colleagues can feel forced. Many businesses are adopting social-networking tools in hopes of fostering collaboration, but if employees don’t sign up or participate, the effort fails.

To get around this problem, HP Labs has created a workplace social network that builds itself. The Web application, dubbed the Collective Project, tracks internal documents created or opened by about 10,000 Hewlett-Packard employees. It assigns topic words to each document by mining its content, and then computes similarity to create knowledge maps and family trees centered around employees and subject areas. The project’s goal is to show how people within a large organization can automatically be connected based on “inferred expertise,” providing a resource that staff can tap into for answers to questions.

“You don’t have to update a profile, you don’t have to declare your interests or expertise, you don’t have to search,” says Ruth Bergman, director of HP Labs Israel, part of the research division of the company. “The tool makes knowledge instantly accessible, rather than being a laborious process of discovery and input,” she says.

In recent years, startups such as Yammer and large companies like IBM have released social and collaborative tools aimed at workplaces. Bergman says many have mimicked consumer services such as Facebook or Twitter, places where people go to socialize and have their voices heard. But at work, she says, people are usually looking to solve problems quickly, so a more passive and automated network can be more efficient.

Within the Collective Project, HP employees can search keywords and see results that recommend useful documents and employees closely connected to those files. Staff can view files they discover, as long as they have access permissions. At very large organizations, this kind of data mining could encourage serendipitous connections between coworkers working in different countries. Bergman herself used the tool at a conference and met a colleague with similar interests with whom she now collaborates.

The system doesn’t yet mine e-mails to detect work patterns, but that feature could be added once the Collective Project is expanded to all of HP, Bergman says. She says it would have to be done carefully, since privacy is a concern. Currently, users can customize permissions to share the full content of some documents, or instead only allow the system to analyze information in a document, but prevent its retrieval by others.

Eventually, Bergman says, the company might market the program as a product to other large businesses that require faster ways to connect internal experts. For now, the project is expanding within Hewlett-Packard. As the program crawls new document troves, associated employees are automatically added to the network.

There will, however, be fewer employees to add. Hewlett-Packard, one of the world’s largest technology companies, is rumored to be laying off up to 30,000 jobs, or 10 percent of its workforce, this week. An HP spokesperson declined to comment.

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