Social media may be all the rage for building brands and connecting with customers, but what some entrepreneurs might not know is that many companies are using social networks for internal communication as well. These tools can help business owners align corporate goals, drive employee engagement and streamline operations. The practice has become widespread in many large U.S. companies and other technology-savvy businesses, but many smaller companies have yet to catch on. For the uninitiated, here's a look at the uses and benefits of internal social networks.

My company and many others are using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, our blog, as well as internal networks such as Microsoft Communicator and Central Desktop. These so-called Web 2.0 tools can help centralize activities within a company and foster collaboration among inter-departmental groups. These efforts can help an organization stay nimble and better compete with larger, more established competitors. Many junior employees already use Web-based applications as their primary means of communication, and their older colleagues are coming on board.

Through the use of forums and collaborative tools on a company's Intranet, internal stakeholders are encouraged to participate and have an equal voice in sharing his or her projects and process, which can tie directly to the overall company's vision and goals. This transparency helps give management a clear view into projects and initiatives across the company. It becomes easier to eliminate "rogue" projects that are not in sync with the objectives of the business. On the flip side, employees have greater visibility into how their everyday activities map to larger corporate goals.

The goal of internal social environments is to create a collaboration-focused community where teams stop working in silos. Take the example of a new product launch that requires involvement from engineering, product development, marketing, field readiness, customer support and sales. Those departments may be dispersed among different time zones. If the detailed components of the launch are integrated into a collaborative social network solution such as Central Desktop, all parties benefit from instant visibility into the project and each of its components. Progress against milestones can be seen and then marked "complete." Setbacks can be instantly communicated and redundancies can be eliminated.

Internal social networks are also increasingly being used as a strategy to empower employees to be creative and have a voice on the direction of the company. For example, my company has a discussion board on our Intranet to encourage colleagues to provide ideas on new products, programs or even ways to improve processes. In my weekly podcast to employees, I encourage everyone to submit feedback so we have open, ongoing dialogue. We ask employees what they think is "hot" (positive) and what's "not" (areas to work on). Then we listen and respond. Recently, someone suggested the lack of workout facilities was "not cool," and we're figuring out a solution. And beyond talking with the CEO, the discussion board also lets our colleagues in other offices interact with each other directly.

An internal social network may also be used as a repository for company information such as the holiday schedule, employee news, technology helpdesk information, product data sheets, sales-training materials, marketing campaigns and news articles about your company. The on-demand access enables employees to be more effective in their respective roles because they can access the information quickly. The overall benefit is a very streamlined and effective organization.

Investing the time and resources into rolling out an internal social network has the potential to deliver benefits to all corners of an organization's business and operations. Companies that adopt these tools are quickly seeing employee engagement, satisfaction and motivation – and in our experience, leading to higher-levels of productivity, revenue and profit.