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Do you use an electronic contact manager?

Most people who work in a field that depends on relationships — salespeople, recruiters, and consultants, for example — do. People in those professions are starting to use social network software, but the primary portal through which they view their relationships today is their contact manager and their email program.

We recently had the chance to talk with Greg Head, former general manager of Best Software's ACT! division, about the future of contact management software — and the convergence with customer relationship management (CRM) and social networking tools. Head has more than 15 years in the CRM industry, including roles as VP of marketing and, later, VP of international sales for SalesLogix. Currently, ACT! has approximately 2 million individual users and 16,000 corporate customers, making it the market share leader for its category. Head estimates that 60-70% of businesspeople use some sort of electronic list of their contacts, even if it is as simple as an Excel file. Here are some of the highlights from our discussion:

Fast Company: What will contact management software look like five years from now? In particular, how will it integrate with social network software?

Greg Head: Contact management software will always be centered around a database of contact information that tracks basic name, addresses, and other data — combined with powerful methods of managing countless commitments and a history of all relationships. That said, we will be doing more contact management activities using an Internet browser or PDA phone, as opposed to just Windows applications. These new methods will allow more integration to the phone and to Web services that can integrate into contact managers — to scrub addresses, to integrate with accounting applications, or to share your relationship data with others.

FC: Andrew Weinreich, the founder of SixDegrees, and other industry leaders have observed that social network software should be part of the "operating system" of your software. Do you agree?

Head: Certainly. Social networking software should evolve to become more integrated with the everyday tools people use to manage relationship information and communicate with others. It's a natural evolution of very useful software — it can't stand alone for long.

FC: Eventually, social network software might underlie everything from the purchasing we do on Amazon to the searches we do on your corporate file network. What happens when Microsoft integrates social networking into Outlook? Or even directly into Windows?

Head: I may be a little biased in this regard, but I think that Microsoft will have to make some fundamental changes to develop the level of trust that is required for people to track, share, and leverage social network information in a Microsoft-hosted world. In fact, even centralized public directory services such as Plaxo might not be able to meet every users' needs because of concerns with privacy and inconvenience. These services might be useful for the user — but are not so useful for the recipient of the "update your contact information" request. As the centralized nature of some of these become known, people will be even more reluctant to send their contact data off across the Internet.

FC: But a lot of people already have. How can people better manage the rolling flow of commitments that our contact management software, our to-do list, and our email clients all generate?

Head: The majority of salespeople and businesspeople are still fighting the first phase of this battle: just tracking all of their follow-up and project commitments in a reliable system. Contact managers provide the tools, but the habit of tracking all commitments and managing them effectively can be different for each person. People should start with the principle that you will meet all of your commitments — and then make sure you have put aside the time to manage these activities.

It is illogical and inconvenient that all of the thousands of people in your personal network have a separate, and often contradictory copy of your cell-phone number, email address, and so on. You were the original source of that data, and ideally, you should be able to update everyone automatically. We try to provide the people we know and work with, with a lifetime email address (such as a university's forwarding address). And we ask other people for their personal and permanent email addresses. If you have that information, you can always get back in touch with someone. Social networking sites can also offer an additional communication channel for staying in contact; people are more motivated to keep their information up to date because there's additional value from the social networking service.

Contact management software, then, provides a one-dimensional view of your network: you can only see whom you know. Social network software can provide an n-dimensional view of your network, with a new dimension for every person in the network. While this may seem simple conceptually, it is very powerful in practical application. We fully expect a tighter integration of these two views to emerge. One thing's for sure: Your contact management software will likely include much greater integration with social network data two years from now than it does today.

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