Social media: lessons for the enterprise

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Social networking usage in the workplace has gone through the roof as Generation Y employees tap into social media such as Instant Messaging, Twitter, Facebook, SharePoint and WordPress to interact with colleagues, partners and customers. As enterprises explore the legitimate use of social networking tools to gain customer intimacy and improve relationships, there are a number of factors that can make deployment more effective

Corporate social networking usage has grown out of message boards, Lotus Notes and intranets and is embracing collaboration tools and the social Web to increase productivity and profitability.  More corporates are using social networking as a response to the rise in globalization and dispersed workforces, and as a way of opening access to business-critical skill sets and information. But, there are a number of reasons why corporates must focus on achieving specific, measurable objectives in a corporate-created social networking environment that encourages positive rather than negative results.

Firstly, there's significant evidence that social networking sites blur the lines between business and personal relationships. Although this might cause inappropriate behavior as personal lives move into the workplace, it's more likely to cause ethical dilemmas for staff and exposure of valuable corporate brands to the vagaries of individuals or user groups. Companies can therefore struggle to delineate what social networking use is appropriate for their staff without over-reaching and denying access altogether to common tools such as Web browsers. There is some evidence to suggest that Web-browsing decreases productivity, but most firms deem it fair to allow access to a variety of Web sites and social Web applications such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Plaxo during work hours.

Resolving the situation

Secondly, firms can fail to effectively deal with this situation because no one corporate discipline fully 'owns' social networking. Sometimes the IT department has control, sometimes Human Resources oversees this function. In practice it's best to place the technical management of the social networking domain with the IT department, but have Human Resources, Sales or Marketing report to the CIO or CEO on the business benefits of such tools. IT and the CIO must meet regularly to ensure that tools are not being misused and to maintain a common fair usage policy for all employees. Problems commonly arise where listed firms must communicate material statements to their shareholders first, but run the risk of overzealous employees doing their job for them and releasing information to the general market illegally.

Finally, firms can struggle to devise a system that measures ROI. This can stem from a lack of clear objectives for the use of social networking tools. Although interaction with customers and partners is relatively straightforward to rationalize, companies must define their own measurement system that places value on employee-to-employee interaction if they are to derive full productivity benefits. Understanding how social networking tools can be used to boost discrete corporate functions helps to define who uses which applications, and with what end result.

Common internal uses include live communication and interaction based on presence applications; staff training, mentoring and performance monitoring; project collaboration; information sharing; knowledge management; social mapping for succession planning and unified communications. External uses include public relations and marketing products, events, ideas and new services; corporate social responsibility dissemination; market or competitive research; staff productivity; recruitment; project management.

Social networking best practice

In an ideal world, the best way to tackle the challenges of introducing and benefitting from social networking is for corporates to build their own social networking framework that includes all the productivity tools employees need without recourse to them using their personal tools at work. Software developers such as JiveYammerSocial TextYourMembership.com,Select MindsSocialGOWackWall and Ning offer different approaches.

Industry heavyweights such as the Cisco Collaboration platform provide options for big multinationals that include telepresence, unified communications and customized Instant Messaging options. Google Wave offers a centralized Web resource for collaboration across text, video, and document creation and sharing that provides an interactive record of social networking sessions.

In order to properly deploy any social networking system, best practice dictates that:

  • There be a plan in place to monitor and mitigate potential reputational risks associated with inappropriate social networking site usage
  • The divide between a right to know what employees are expressing online with their right to retain privacy is mitigated, and kept in context by helping them understand appropriate usage
  • code of ethics should be maintained and updated regularly, such as this one from Marks & Spencer
  • Discussion of the use of social networking in the corporation must be elevated to the board level, as it is a strategic issue.

Three ways that social media adds value

Firms need to demonstrate the value of social networking. Here are the best three reasons:

  • Organizational and geographical boundaries are bridged, with corporate information and discussion taking place on central, shared resources such as blogs and wikis, rather than on email or on the phone
  • Teams can easily find the information they need, because social networking adds context, tags and social bookmarks to data that helps others find it more rapidly
  • Employees with specific skill sets can easily connect with co-workers through user profiles and expert searches, and gain information that helps them do their job more productively.

Ten big brands that use social networking tools

  • Best Western sponsors 'On The Go With Amy,' an evolving travelogue
  • IBM Bloggers are encouraged to post to the site
  • Coca-Cola employee Phil Mooney blogs on Coca-Cola Conversations
  • Ford has pioneered Social Media Press Releases to communicate news using a variety of formats
  • Kodak has dedicated a whole site to the development of social interaction with potential customers called 1000 Words.
  • ...As does Johnson & Johnson
  • The New York Times has launched TimesPeople Beta, its social networking community
  • Starbucks is currently asking its customers how to run the company, through My Starbucks Idea
  • Suppository brand, Anusol, has launched a Facebook community
  • MTV has extended its brand into the lives of viewers by offering an online interactive resource called Think MTV that deals with social issues.
Co-written by Simon Marshall
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.