Businesses can leap ahead of their competitors by combining social networking and customer relationship management...
to help them develop innovative products, research firm Gartner has said.
The opportunity for social software in enterprise or "Enterprise 2.0 technologies" lies in capturing informal customer comments about products, said David Cearley, research fellow at Gartner.
"This includes opinions, comments, descriptions, labels, preferences, observations, likes and dislikes, and predictions as raw material for building valuable information resources," he said.
The key advantage of Enterprise 2.0 technologies is that they make customer patterns visible to the business over time, said Andrew McAfee, associate professor at Harvard Business School, on his blog.
Starbucks', for example, is using a social networking application to refine its products. It encourages customers to submit ideas to the mystarbucksidea.com website - an online suggestion box. Customers can discuss and vote for the best ideas, which are passed on to key decision-makers. They can get the kudos of seeing their idea put into action.
"Establishing a participation platform - the mechanism by which user contributions are pulled together - can reveal patterns and relationships and provide a shared repository of information that can deliver business value," said Cearley.
IT managers should look at a range of collaboration software and see how they can be configured to aggregate interactions between the customer and the business, he said.
Mayank Prakash, CIO at Sage, said that the combination of Web 2.0 technologies and CRM offered businesses the chance to work with their customers to develop products and build stronger relationships with them.
"Social networking technologies allow a business to aggregate customer feedback and to build a conversation and relationship with a customer over their competitors. When a customer makes a decision to buy a product, it is the strength of this relationship that will determine who they deal with," he said.
Gartner predicts that by 2010 the concepts, language and technologies of consumer social software, such as Facebook and Myspace, will become part of mainstream business software.
The entrance of digital natives - people younger than 28 by 2018 or who have grown up surrounded by digital technology - into the workplace will influence the take-up of social networking dramatically.
This web-savvy generation will form a substantial share of a business's customers in the future. Companies will have to develop channels such as blogs and wikis to capture feedback and maintain customer loyalty, said Gartner.
Enterprise IT managers need an appreciation of consumer social networks, and should try them out to find out what works and what does not, said Gartner analyst Donna Fitzgerald.
"Experiment with social software on the web for your understanding and personal benefit. LinkedIn or Ning - where you can build your own network - are good choices," she said.
Businesses can build their competency with social networking software by running pilot projects to capture employee knowledge over the company intranet, for example, an employee suggestion styled application aimed at networking comments.
However, IT managers must gauge whether their organisation's culture is geared towards supporting collaboration before deploying software.
"Executive support is necessary to begin building a collaborative culture. Top down support validates the entire Enterprise 2.0 initiative, confirming that the organisation takes collaboration with customers and employees seriously and is committed to doing it better."