If ever there was an application that doesn’t get the respect it deserves, it’s the company directory.

I’ve spent most of the last week talking with Socialtext customers and prospects about our new People and Dashboard features.  The response has been overwhelmingly positive, which has been great to see. But in some ways it has been surprising. While some of the people I talk with are really engaged by “Web 2.0″ features of the offering (social networking, tagging, expert search, etc.), a lot of customers are just excited to have a really good company directory. As one IT Director put it “Just having a real company directory–where you can see who everyone is, what they do, and what they look like–would be a huge step forward for us.”

It’s pretty shocking when you stop to think about it. Everyone recognizes that in a knowledge economy, talent is the single most valuable commodity. Companies spend huge amounts of time and cash attracting and retaining talent. They spend hours recruiting and screening candidates. They pay sign-on bonuses, refer-a-friend rewards, and headhunter commissions, on top of the base salaries of the people they hire. Those efforts, when successful, result in formidable internal talent networks. But what do these companies do to connect those employees once they join the company? In most cases, shockingly little. Want to find the phone number of Jane in Accounting? That may take a while. Want to know who Frank the project manager reports to? No one seems to know. Want to know what Francois from the Paris Office teleconference looks like? Pas de chance, mon ami.

What’s even more interesting is that when true company-wide directories do exist, they’re a killer app. When I was at McKinsey, for example, over 75% of our intranet searches were directory searches. I’d be surprised if the number were much different at other companies.

Why do so many companies have lousy directories? I think this is a case where companies’ ways of getting things done don’t align with their business priorities. The natural owner of a company directory is corporate HR, but IT vendors in that space are off frying bigger fish like ERP, recruiting management, and performance evaluation. So the directory gets home-brewed by a couple of IT guys over the weekend. As a result, it’s usually done at the departmental level rather than company-wide, it’s strictly name-rank-and-serial-number stuff, and it looks like, well, IT home-brew.

For all those reasons, Socialtext People seems to be scratching an itch–even for people who don’t have much interest in Facebook or LinkedIn. Employees want to be able to find each other, quickly and easily. Companies want an attractive, intuitive, inexpensive tool that those employees will use and enjoy. Even without all the social networking stuff, Socialtext People does that really nicely. It’s easy to use, it’s flexible, and it looks great.

All respect to the Company Directory.