FAQ: Enterprise social media and the role of the CIO

FAQ: Social media in the enterprise

Social media in the enterprise is no longer solely the domain of marketing, a collection of tools employed to entice and engage -- and track -- the customer. Rather, the full spectrum of social media technologies -- from Twitter-esque activity streams to communal sharing sites with a Facebook feel -- is being promoted, packaged and promulgated inside the enterprise itself. Building the social enterprise is about being social, to be sure, but being social for the greater good of the business, in increased worker productivity and greater innovation.

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What is enterprise social media?

The term "enterprise social media" refers to the use and adaptation of social platforms that have become commonplace in everyday life, such as Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, for workplace networking and collaboration. Enterprise social media, or "the social enterprise" is an important component of Enterprise 2.0, a term coined in 2006 to refer to the strategic integration of social software and collaborative technologies into an enterprise's intranet, extranet and business processes. Enterprise 2.0, however, also includes the use of social media tools to market the business and its products to customers, while enterprise social media focuses on using these same tools (wikis, blogs and activity streams, for example) to promote employee collaboration, productivity and innovation. Though it's not yet the prevailing model, these social media tools increasingly are being rolled into enterprise collaboration platforms, either homegrown or purchased, in order to integrate social media into the regular workday experience.

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How is enterprise social media important to corporate culture?

Enterprise social media has the potential to improve the ability of the corporate workforce, from the top management to the rank and file, to engage in meaningful and real-time communication and collaboration. Proponents of enterprise social media argue that the tools help uncover the knowledge that exists within a company by flattening traditional organizational hierarchies and breaking down departmental boundaries. Such tools as wikis and blogs, for example, may allow executives to see what employees deem valuable to the company and allow employees to voice their concerns.

In turn, employees get a better sense of what is valuable to a company in terms of its corporate goals and values. Cisco CEO John Chambers, for example, said he maintains a consistent telepresence because he puts a premium on face-to-face interaction. "That is a demonstration of what is important to the business and what is important to the leadership of the business," said TJ Keitt, analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Social media in the enterprise may also spur innovation -- whether intentionally, through the sharing of ideas, or incidentally, simply by communicating. One example of such "incidental innovation" involved an employee at Lowe's Companies Inc. who asked via the company's social network how to get more inventory of a particular paint tray. When a fellow employee on the network asked how this person had sold out of inventory, she explained that a demo she had made for using the paint tray had tripled its sales. The demo was scaled companywide, resulting in millions of dollars in additional sales.

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What are the challenges related to implementing enterprise social media platforms?

Employee adoption is often cited by IT leaders as the biggest challenge to implementing enterprise social media. Unless the tools help employees work better or be more productive, engaging in corporate social media may often be seen as just another task. Social media proponents, including CIOs, are learning that if you build it, employees may come but they won't necessarily stay.

To remedy this, IT leaders who believe in the power of social collaboration are going beyond simply installing a platform and are getting employees engaged. This was something General Electric Co. kept in mind as it crafted its Colab social collaboration platform, launched in early 2012. To ensure employee investment, for example, the platform was released as a work in progress. This meant workers had the opportunity to weigh in on its functions and features. Workers' issues and insights were addressed in a timely manner, which in turn made them more likely to talk up Colab to co-workers, said GE Corporate CIO Ron Utterbeck. "No one has to use this platform to do their day job; they use this platform because they can do their day job easier by linking in and networking with their peers," he said.

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Does it matter which social media tools a company uses?

Experts and IT leaders agree that the specific tools don't matter as much as who uses them and how they are used. Today a plethora of social media tools is aimed at the enterprise. Once the domain of major vendors like Microsoft and IBM, enterprise social media offerings are fast becoming the playground of startups. Some of those startups are being purchased by larger vendors looking to offer the latest innovations they don't possess, as in the case of Microsoft's Yammer acquisition. Meanwhile, makers of all manner of technologies and business applications are including some type of "social" component in their software.

It's crucial to know what the workers' needs are and what the organization wants to get out of enterprise social media offerings before selecting tools or platforms, Keitt said. "The biggest mistake is just to keep throwing technology at it and assume because the box says 'social' that it will make the business more collaborative," he said. "At a departmental level, you have to understand what it is you want people to do, and you have to understand what prohibits them from doing it."

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What is the role of the CIO in the social enterprise?

Social media in the enterprise is still in its relative infancy, so the role of the CIO is still evolving. The size of the enterprise, the industry in which it operates and leadership's appetite for wading into the social realm -- all factor into the part the CIO plays.

Tony Byrne, president of The Real Story Group, an analyst firm in Silver Spring, Md., that focuses on Web content and social software, said people tend to see social media technologies as outside the CIO's domain. But he believes the CIO has an important role to play, especially if a company is looking to take a social media strategy enterprisewide. "CIOs can act as an honest broker in helping the enterprise figure out which are the highest-value applications," he said.

There is a "glut" of collaborative technology in business that may or may not be managed by IT, Keitt said. This is an opportunity for CIOs to be proactive leaders or reactive enablers, he said. For example, a CIO could be reactive in implementing a particular collaboration tool because end users are already exploring other (possibly unsanctioned) tools on their own. The proactive CIO would identify the need for the tool and the right tool for the job and pursue implementation "because you think that's the way the world is going to move, so you take the initiative and make sure that's possible in your organization," he added.

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Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, Features Writer.