Online social networking services are more popular than ever for dating and befriending people with similar hobbies, but what about social networking for professional growth?   While social networking sites (SNS), including leader

s Myspace and Facebook, are generally viewed as personal tools for tracking friends and meeting others who share similar interests, a number of companies are incorporating SNS into the professional realm and aiming for stronger business connections and happier employees.   Networking at professional events remains one of the leading ways to make business contacts. However, attending an event can cost money and consume valuable time while providing little guarantee you will actually connect with a viable contact. Now, growing evidence suggests that SNS are a more cost effective way to meet potential business contacts through a personal contact. Not only are SNS free, but meeting contacts cuts very little into work time. More importantly, it’s a faster way to turn a cold lead into a warm one.    Travis Kalanick, Founder and CEO of Red Swoosh, believes SNS are essential for business networking. Social networks are like grease — in some cases, gasoline — for our personal business networking machines, said Kalanick.   If you aren't plugged in, you will be out-done by better-connected, hyper-networked colleagues and competitors. LinkedIn is very good for browsing relationships and hooking into your contacts' networks. It re-connected me with high-level execs I hadn't talked to for some time, who then helped me close various deals. And I've hired some highly qualified contractors after connecting with them on Orkut.”   But, it’s not all about business; SNS can also turn employees into friends and create a more sociable working environment, resulting in increased productivity.   Serena Software, for instance, has what it calls “Facebook Fridays” where its 800 employees spend time each Friday getting to know fellow workers.   A press release sent out by the company based in San Mateo, Calif. quoted CEO Jeremy Burton as saying: "Social networking tools like Facebook can bring us back together, help us get to know each other as people, help us understand our business and our products, and help us better serve our customers."   While Serena does not track individual use of Facebook, Mary Helen Waldo, Serena's vice president of global HR, receives a regular count of total usage and estimates employees use the site on average for less than 10 minutes per week, which indicates employees aren’t spending an inordinate amount of time social networking.   SNS, according to Waldo, also succeeds at helping employees connect with one another on a personal level and creating a more homogenous work environment.   "From a cultural standpoint, bringing together a lot of disparate corporate cultures can be a challenge, and we see Facebook as helping that effort," said Waldo.   On the upside, SNS in the office can provide employees that little bit of sociability they crave on a daily basis, encouraging them to form connections with other employees based on interests beyond working for the same company. Moreover, being introduced to a new contact by a personal friend makes business networking less stressful and more informal.    On the downside, using an SNS for professional networking can lead to proprietary information leaks. In addition, it’s possible your colleagues might see your personal profile on non-business social networks and discover more about you than you may want them to.   In the end, being prudent when using any social service, whether for professional or personal reasons, is the way to go.   By Kathleen Clark   FEEDBACK For comments on this article, email us at