Social media is key in helping businesses attract scarce talent, build relationships with their customers and navigate the rapidly growing morass of information on the internet.
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Organisations that embrace social media, rather than blocking their employees from using it, will find themselves at a competitive advantage, Computer Weekly's CW500 club of IT directors heard this week.
Social media is becoming essential to help organisations make sense of the mushrooming volume of information on the internet, JP Rangaswami (pictured), chief scientist at BT, told the group.
"We were at a Google conference yesterday. Eric Schmidt said that between the year dot and 2003, five exabytes of information were generated in the world. Today that is generated every two days. I have no doubt that we are in information overload," he said.
But social media services such as LinkedIn, which is widely used by IT professionals, can help people rise above the deluge, said Rangaswami. "I do not have to find things any more. People recommend things that they know are interesting to me. That means I can focus on the trees rather than on the individual branches. The greater my network, the better my filtering will be."
Engaging with customers
For businesses, empowering employees to use social networking can reap dividends by helping companies raise their profile and bring them closer to their customers.
BT made its first step into social media through the microblogging service Twitter. The company set up a five-strong team in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, to respond to customer queries.
"The first thing we learned was that Twitter is 24/7. The second was that customers really liked it because it is fundamentally different from a call centre," Rangaswami said. Customers liked the fact that they did not have to hang on the phone waiting for an answer. They could go off and do other things.
Engaging with customers on social media can turn critics of an organisation into advocates, said Rangaswami. The more angry the critic, the more likely they are to become an evangelist for your company if you can win them over.
Attracting skilled staff
Using social media can give businesses an edge when it comes to recruiting top IT professionals in a market facing increasing skills shortages, Ariel Eckstein, managing director of Hiring Solutions Europe for LinkedIn, told the group.
A Confederation of British Industry survey shows that 75% of companies are significant employers of people with expertise in science and technology, but 45% are having trouble attracting and retaining the right staff.
"This is a long-term situation. It is not just a UK situation, it is [the same] in Germany and the US. Demand is outstripping supply, not only at a senior level, but at an architect level and a database level. You are in a [battle] for true talent. They know they are in short supply and it is a seller's market," Eckstein said.
Businesses need to respond by letting people know that their company is a great place to work. Allowing employees to use social networking tools at work is a great way to promote the organisation, he said.
In particular, human resources departments need to start using social networking tools to build relationships with potential future employees. "They need to go from a hunter mode to a forester mode. You want people in HR to start cultivating relationships with universities and individuals," he said.
A great place to work
But Eckstein warned that merely posting positive comments about your company without substance behind them is unlikely to work in the long term.
"You need to take a leaf out of Google's book and make your business a great place to work," he said. "The free lunches Google offers attract people, but the reason people want to work at Google is that they can work with the best."
Companies including Accenture have embraced social media for recruitment. The company aims to hire 55,000 people over the coming years - with half recruited through social media. And Microsoft has used LinkedIn to recruit and assemble experts for project teams with very short lead times.
To make social networking work, companies need to take a decision to trust their staff, rather than trying to use technology and acceptable use policies to lock down social media.
"We talk to companies about getting the best people into the enterprise. They say, 'if I allow employees to use Twitter or LinkedIn, other people will poach them'," said Eckstein. "I say, 'when I leave my house, I don't lock my wife inside because I want to keep my wife'. People stay at your company if you give them a vision of why they should stay."
Reputation at risk?
Executives are often worried that their company's reputation might suffer if employees say the wrong thing online. But the principles in the on-line world are no different to those in the real world, said Rangaswami.
Companies need to trust employees to be sensible and say the right things online, just as they trust them to be sensible when they are speaking at conferences, or to prospective clients over dinner.
"The thing that prevents me from discussing information is my contract. The same contract applies to the digital world," he says.
Of course, things do occasionally go wrong. In one incident, a worker at a mobile phone company left a Twitter account open by mistake and someone walking by posted an inappropriate message on the company's Twitter account.
For many IT professionals, the barriers are more practical. Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is an author and social media specialist. He says that IT professionals often shy away from Twitter or blogs because they are worried they have nothing interesting to say.
"I spoke to a CIO recently who had just set up a Twitter account. He was asking, 'what do I say? What I do is just not interesting.'. But I told him that a lot of people would find what he is doing very interesting. You don't have to be having dinner every day with the Queen."
The same principle applies to blogs. The first trick is to keep it personal and write about something you are interested in - if you do, you will come across as genuine and people will warm to you. The second trick is to make sure you tell people about your blog.
"You could have the most interesting and fascinating blog, but it is pointless if you don't tell anyone about it. Even if it is just by using Twitter," Kobayashi-Hillary says.
He quotes research from Gartner which suggests that social media will overtake e-mail as the primary method of communication in the workplace by 2014.
As a new generation of internet-savvy youngsters, used to using Facebook as their main form of communication, enters the workforce, social networking is going to be difficult to avoid, said Rangaswami.
"Your customers are probably already using social media. If there are 425 million people on Facebook, it is reasonable that some of them are probably your customers," he said.
CW500 is an exclusive networking group for UK IT leaders. To find out more about forthcoming events, see here: www.computerweekly.com/cw500, or you can register for regular updates and invitations to our monthly CW500 events.