SharePoint 2010 introduces “ready for prime time” social networking for the enterprise, with a rich feature set around social content, activity feeds, social and people search, and more. At the recent SharePoint Connections event, I hosted a (social model) discussion with several dozen IT Pros from a diverse range of enterprises. The goal of the discussion was to identify big wins and best practices for social networking in the enterprise.

I’ll be sharing the discussion with you over several SharePoint Pro Connections Update newsletters. This week, let’s start by answering the question "When should you start considering an implementation of social networking in your enterprise?"

The bottom line: you already have. Social networking is not new. It’s not Web 2.0. It’s the water cooler. It’s discussions with colleagues at company events and with friends and family at the football game on the weekend.

Takeaway #1: You already have social networking in place. Always start from that perspective.

What’s new is that there are innovative and ever expanding toolsets with which to integrate the social nature of the human spirit with the reality of work. These toolsets are the cause of a lot of overblown concern (I’ll explain why “overblown” in a future newsletter), and are a tsunami that, honestly, you cannot manage fully.

Several years ago, the week after I moved to Maui, we had rains like I’d never seen before in my life. Down the hill (actually, a volcano) flowed a stream of water that was unbelievable, and part of it was ending up in my yard. As the water level rose, it was getting close to coming in to my home. I’d lived in Phoenix and (even drier) Denver for most of my life, so I had no idea how to fight the flood.

I started piling up dirt and rock to fashion a dam in front of my home, but the water just kept rising. I finally realized that I could dig a trench away from the house to a nearby cliff, and that the water would take the path of least resistance and continue down the hill. It was that day that I learned that when there is a force that you cannot stop, don’t try blocking it. Instead, channel the force the way you want it to go. (A friend of mine refers to this as a “parent of a two-year-old” lesson.)

That metaphor is perfect for social networking. It exists. You cannot stop it. You can block social network sites using your enterprise firewall—I know companies that block any site with a URL pattern match of *social*. But that doesn’t stop your employees from using their powerful cell phones to interact with social sites online.

Takeaway #2: Don’t pretend that you can stop or ignore social networking, because the flood will hit you, eventually.

In our discussion at SharePoint Connections, one participant shared a story that employees were posting work-related information on Twitter. As soon as that kind of thing happens—and it will—you lose control of the discussion. If your customers open a discussion about your products or services on one of many sites designed for customer feedback, such as GetSatisfaction.com, you lose the ability to directly respond to those customers. This dynamic is prevalent—I hear about it all the time. If you don’t channel the social reality to tools of your choice, you will lose control.

So when should you start considering enterprise social networking? Now. Last week, Microsoft released the beta of SharePoint 2010. Some of the social features are definitely beta (particularly user profile related functionality—put it in a lab with a Windows Server 2008 domain, not a Windows Server 2003 domain), but you will see that there is now “Facebook-like” and “YouTube -like” and “Twitter-like” functionality integrated with stunning new MySites.

Start looking at the functionality to get a handle on what SharePoint offers. Let it spark your imagination. Let your creativity flow. Do not worry, yet, about the risks, the costs, the downsides, governance, selling it to your boss, or anything else. Just think about the possibilities.

Takeaway #3: Look at SharePoint 2010’s social networking feature set with a completely open mind, devoid of any fears of “what if” or “how…”

I’m not suggesting that you won’t eventually have to concern yourself with all of the rest. In fact, in coming issues of SharePoint Pro Connections, we’ll look at many of the other aspects of enterprise social and knowledge networking.

Next up: Don’t even leave the starting gate without a thorough understanding of your business requirements. In other words, why is social networking important to your business?

Follow me on http://twitter.com/danholme and Microsoft’s SharePoint Social feed @SPSocial. Also check out http://sharepoint.microsoft.com/social.