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Need an excuse to justify the time you spend using Facebook while at work? You may soon have one.

Software companies have been busy lately talking up the potential of social networking tools to boost productivity in the workplace.

IT vendors including IBM and Oracle are encouraging businesses to invest in software that works much like a corporate equivalent of Facebook to connect staff across organisations, and even out to other businesses they deal with.

They also see value in workers spending more time on their iPhones and communicating via instant messaging.

Businesses have a lot to gain by embracing the concepts behind the hugely popular social networking internet sites people flock to in their private lives, says Ed Brill, a US-based IBM director who specialises in messaging and collaboration software.

Effective business collaboration was based on developing good relationships, and technology that allowed people across an organisation to share information helped boost productivity, Brill said.

While social networking with colleagues may not appeal to all workers, there were ways to encourage it.

IBM's own internal social networking platform, called Beehive, awarded points to those who used the system, Brill said. And while the points had no value, displaying them seemed to help boost Beehive's effectiveness.

"For some types of people in the organisation that [point system] is going to be enough to encourage them to share the information they have and therefore help everyone in the organisation be more productive."

While younger Generation Y workers who have grown up with the internet were most comfortable with social networking and Web 2.0 applications, Brill said older workers were also happy to adopt the technology.

IBM used its own communication, instant messaging and web-conferencing technology, Lotus SameTime, to connect its own staff. At peak times up to 200,000 staff, about half of IBM's global workforce, were signed into the system, even though connecting was not mandatory.

"When a tool presents itself with clear value it will get adopted even by generations that didn't necessarily grow up with it," Brill said.

Corporate software maker Oracle sees an increasing role for collaboration between staff on the sales side of a business and has been promoting its "Social CRM" (customer relationship management) software in New Zealand this month.

The software aims to encourage an organisation's staff to add successful sales tools - such as PowerPoint slides - to a corporate "library" of sales material which can be accessed by colleagues across the business.

Simon Banks, Oracle's Asia Pacific general manager for CRM On Demand, said Generation Y had grown up using online collaboration tools, so their arrival in the workforce was helping spark this type of innovation around traditional office systems such as CRM.

"They've grown up at home and at school using very rich interactive collaborative applications. They expect this concept of a social structure in everything they do," Banks said.

"Selling is fundamentally a social activity, it is not something that is necessarily directly process-bound," he said.

"CRM technology has never really cracked this nut of helping people have conversations with their customers, so that's where we see a big future based on Web 2.0, based on social networking, in helping CRM become a lot more conversational."

Meanwhile, Oracle - like rival SAP and other business software vendors - has developed software to access business information from mobile devices including the BlackBerry and iPhone.

Several businesses have baulked at allowing workers to use gadgets such as the iPhone to connect to corporate databases, fearing the security risks.

But increasing numbers are softening that stance after being convinced the devices will help to boost worker productivity.