A guide to social networking in the enterprise

Social computing is a social structure in which technology puts power in communities, not institutions.

Social computing is a social structure in which technology puts power in communities, not institutions.

The term "social" holds the promise of a customer-driven business model in which customers influence business strategy and where employees respond to customer needs. Yet, despite all the hype around the technologies, the social computing revolution has barely had an impact on IT and the CIO.

Although the definition of social computing focuses on technology as shifting power to the people away from the institution, from an IT perspective it is important to focus on the social component of the definition. Rapidly growing communities have fundamentally shifted our social structure, a shift that will take a generation to play out.

Our synchronous communications have evolved from mainly face-to-face and phone conversations to now include instant messaging of one form or another (eg AIM, Twitter, SMS, Facebook, etc). In this always-connected society, we are developing new ways to share knowledge and use the wealth of information at our fingertips. Generation Y is leading the charge, as they significantly outpace older workers' adoption of smartphones, SMS texting and microblogging services such as Twitter. What started as a social pastime has quickly evolved into a staple in the workplace. In fact, in a recent study of social media users, respondents cited multiple work-related reasons for using social media.

CIOs must position IT to lead corporate social computing strategy

CIOs have a prime opportunity to rethink core business processes and examine how to use social computing to create advantages for the business. CIOs should take a leadership role in this transition, helping broker the changes needed across the organisation and garner executive support to take advantage of social computing. Success in social computing depends on following a change-management methodology research company Forrester calls "Post". This methodology puts an understanding of the people the community aims to serve ahead of determining the objectives, strategy and technology.

Step one - understand the people

The first step in this methodology is to understand the people you are looking to engage. In developing a framework for internal collaboration in a large organisation, this means profiling the employees (and partners if they are participating). While most employee populations in the US might be expected to follow the profile of the US online population, there may be significant differences in your population based on company demographics.

Developing successful communities requires an understanding of the motivations behind participation in social communities.

The profile of the workforce will tell you what is possible with social computing. No matter what the application, any form of social collaboration typically requires a large user base (more than 1,000) to be effective. The reason for this is that not all people are destined to be contributors to the social community, with only 30% to 40% of most social site members actively contributing content to the community. Out of 1,000 active members, a community based on the typical US population would have just 130 creators and 190 critics, with the remaining active members consuming content but not adding to it in any way.

Step two - determine business objectives

While a single, targeted objective is crucial for a well-executed interactive marketing campaign, it is restrictive when considering how to leverage social communities in the organisation at large. Early examples of successful social communities in organisations demonstrate the ability to solve multiple objectives because these communities provide multiple layers of social activities. Common internally focused community objectives include: innovating, collaborating, supporting, learning and archiving

Step three - develop an appropriate strategy

Your objective determines what business goal you want to accomplish. Having decided on the objective, you can move on to strategy: How will you accomplish the goal(s)? In particular, social strategy revolves around answering this question: How do I want to change the relationships between people in the social ecosystem (i.e., customers, suppliers, or employees)? By focusing on the relationships between the people in the community, and not the technology, CIOs can keep an eye on the long-term changes that matter.

Communication strategy

This may be as simple as sending short messages to others in the community to let them know what's happening. For example, a Yammer community built internally for employees behind a firewall would allow employees to share information about what they are working on. A communication strategy addresses the question of how members of the community will share information with each other. This strategy forms the foundation of supporting most social objectives in step two above, but it is unlikely to be successful on its own. Although a communicate strategy might be used in isolation for a document-archiving community, it is typically used in conjunction with one or more of the other strategies

Contribution strategy

This strategy fulfils the esteem needs. Simple question-and-answer communities provide one example of a contribute strategy, but to fully tap the potential, the technology should support the ability for members to give kudos to each other and for contributions to be rewarded in some way. To be supportive, a community must offer both the ability to post questions and to give answers; the strategy should address how the community will make this process easy for members and what the resulting change in relationship between members will be. For example, a community of busy executives is unlikely to succeed if it relies on Web access. Instead, allowing members to interact over e-mail updates would greatly increase the community's utility.

Creation Strategy

The creation strategy must determine the forms of creativity available to members. The strategy should determine how members will be able to come together to collaborate on a challenging problem. For example, allowing members to upload video may help stimulate creativity, or allowing members to build small groups on the fly to work on a problem may help promote collaboration. However, to establish a vibrant social community, it is unlikely that a creation strategy alone will succeed. For example, combining a creation strategy with a connect strategy allows members of the community to more easily find the people with whom they should collaborate.

Why you should use social computing 
  1. Unlock innovation. Social media users who have experience leveraging social media applications are confident that social computing will help their organisation innovate and increase productivity. They also see it having a major impact on customer service and brand recognition For example, technology reseller CDW created a research community that it used to redefine its sales techniques, generating a 17% increase in customer value.
  2. Increase productivity. When it comes to having a direct impact on their roles, the majority of social media users find it helpful in multiple aspects of their work, especially around collaboration. For example, Accenture is a huge company with thousands of consultants. With its sharing applications, more than 100,000 employees use its Facebook-like "People" application. This logs thousands of questions and responses from staff. There are hundreds of pages in its knowledge-sharing wiki, and clients use the company's extranet pages to keep up on projects and statuses.

A well-executed social computing strategy empowers employees to support, service and delight newly empowered customers. Companies with empowered employees have a significant competitive advantage in the socially connected world we now live in.


This is an excerpt from "The CIO's Guide To social computing Leadership" by Nigel Fenwick, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research serving CIOs. To find out more, visit the Forrester website.

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