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The new era of social business

This article appears in the issue June 2012 [Volume 21, Issue 6]
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Social technology is coming into every organization—whether IT wants it or not. The adoption of social technologies to support business and customer needs has been fastest outside of IT, often with IT playing catch-up and struggling to provide value.

CIOs are at a crossroads: Do they choose to lead IT toward social business maturity or sit back and watch as the rest of the organization pushes ahead, leaving IT in social business obscurity? The choice is easy. IT risks falling behind the rest of the business when it comes to adopting social technologies. Without building solid skill sets and experience, IT will be unable to help the organization exploit the full potential of social technologies. That will open up opportunities for social technology vendors to bypass IT and push IT further into obscurity. Failing to grasp this opportunity now will result in further isolation of IT from the mainstream business and will add to the perception that the CIO and IT are out of touch with the needs of the business. View downloadable chart here.

Execution is not easy

Begin by developing an action plan based on the social maturity of your organization. Social business strategy combines internal, employee-oriented social strategies with external, customer-facing strategies to form an enterprisewide approach to social technology in support of business strategy. To succeed, the entire organization must develop a degree of maturity in the application of social technologies. For IT to be effective in supporting a successful social business strategy, CIOs must focus on developing a social technology skill set within IT—a digital business center of excellence—based on the current social maturity of the enterprise.

As your organization embarks on its social journey, it will develop either external or internal maturity first. The challenge comes in extending that experience across other dimensions, ultimately leading to enterprisewide maturity.

Evaluate current level

CIOs must evaluate their current state of social business maturity and develop a plan to help the organization attain a higher level of maturity:

  • CIOs in social laggard organizations should experiment within IT. Characterized by organizations whose executives consider social technology to be a passing fad, laggards lack the leadership and business interest to experiment with social technologies. CIOs in laggard organizations can start by experimenting with social technologies that increase IT productivity or efficiency, while seeking opportunities for business-driven pilots across the organization. For example, introducing Yammer as a means to request IT's help in answering a question can allow IT to experiment with social technology while also spreading experience into the enterprise.
  • CIOs of externally mature organizations need to partner with marketing. Many early pilots with social technologies focus on driving increased customer engagement and brand awareness. For example, Starbucks engages its customers through an ideation platform, inviting input from customers on how to improve the Starbucks brand. Organizations with customer maturity are typically characterized by a lack of IT involvement in marketing-led social initiatives. CIOs in those organizations must support marketing while learning how to help the organization develop greater internal maturity. Work with the marketing organization to provide opportunities to your employees for greater engagement with customers. To do that, integrate collaboration platforms and social networks that extend between employees and customers such as social CRM.
  • CIOs at internally mature organizations should encourage customer-facing initiatives. Early pilots of social technologies within organizations, such as United Business Media's enterprise wiki, focus on improving employee communications. Some organizations, such as Intuit, use social network platforms like Brainstorm to support their innovation process. Organizations with internal maturity are characterized by a lack of customer-facing social initiatives. CIOs in those organizations must work with HR, sales and marketing to empower employees to explore how social capabilities might also support customer-focused goals such as improved customer service or increased brand awareness. For example, empowering staff to use Facebook or Twitter to engage with customers can help develop external maturity.
  • CIOs whose organizations have enterprise maturity should formulate social business strategy. Organizations that manage to bridge internal and external social strategies develop enterprise social maturity. In those companies, customer-facing strategies empower employees to collaborate and to solve customers' challenges. As described in the Forrester report of the same name, "social business strategy" requires the integration of social technology into business capabilities.  At the Sun Life Financial company, for example, IT and marketing collaborate closely to direct internal social collaboration around innovation. IT and marketing also support externally focused social strategies that have transformed the ways in which the company engages with customers: Sun Life now invites customers to evaluate financial advisors through an app that is similar to a date-matching tool.

Fortunately, even CIOs in laggard companies can lead the IT team out of darkness by making social technology central to how IT delivers value to the business. With decisive action, you can begin to transform IT from the department of "no" to the department of "here's how." Start by bringing together the IT leadership team to build a foundational vision for IT around the use and adoption of social technology in support of IT's operating strategy.

Short-term: Articulate the vision and initiate momentum

Actions speak louder than words, so it's important to make some changes that communicate the vision immediately. It is also important to highlight early activity and successes to encourage others to join the effort. Some of the short-term tactics to consider include:

  • Establish an IT social business council. While an enterprisewide social business council is a prerequisite to developing effective social business strategy, the foundation of that council isn't within the control of the CIO. However, the CIO can bring together a team of IT leaders and social advocates as IT's internal social business council, to strategize and drive the adoption of social technologies within IT. For example, the council might explore how Yammer or similar social tools might improve help desk services to employees throughout the enterprise. Whether the IT council is established as a standalone group within IT or formed from an existing IT team, the CIO must empower it to experiment with emerging and established social technologies within IT.
  • Hold social technology workshops for IT. Workshops are a quick and effective way to start your IT team down the path to social technology enlightenment. A good workshop model balances education with team breakouts aimed at stimulating discussion and exploring how IT can get ahead of social technology. Work with vendors or consultants to design a workshop to explore examples of how companies are using social technologies within the context of social business strategy. Have the IT team work through real-world challenges to fast-track their expertise. Use exercises and simulations to brainstorm, develop business use cases, and discuss the risks of employing such capabilities and how to mitigate them.
  • Start an IT leadership blog. Show your commitment to social technology leadership by starting your own blog and encouraging your IT leadership team to do the same. Far from being a waste of time, an internal blog is a powerful vehicle for regular communication with employees, allowing for more engagement than traditional e-mail. For example, you can write a blog to engage IT staff while sharing your perspectives on the company, IT or technology. Plenty of CIOs and IT leaders tweet and blog regularly in the public domain. For example, Linda Cureton, CIO at NASA, maintains a regular blog, mixing news and opinion on everything from leadership challenges to staff changes.

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