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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

What the heck is Social Business?

I see a lot of commentary about "Social Business" in the tech press at the moment. Like most things trendy, the label is pretty meaningless. Many vendors are jumping on the bandwagon, which makes it even worse. But I think there's something important at the heart of this and, rather than build more hype, I wanted to give a personal view based on my own experiences.

I'm assuming that email, calendar and instant messaging are givens - thats not what makes a social business. The things that I think are new and which do make a business a social business, include:

  • Support for using external social media - Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. Its becoming increasingly important for employees to be more aware of what's going on in the world and to build relationships with externals like suppliers, universities, analysts, customers, etc. Today, you need to engage in social media to do this - so many of the people you need to interact with are active in those places that if you aren't, its like losing one of your senses. For example, I interact with many people on Twitter and get most of my industry news through that channel - cutting that off would seriously limit my knowledge. My Twitter presence is also part of who I am - my skills, opinions and reputation are visible through my tweets. I have nowhere to hide - but that's a good thing (I hope!) as people get to know a more rounded version of me. Today I think this is expected - people want to judge your credibility and seeing that evidenced through Social Media is a vey powerful tool. Expectations of behaviour need to be set, but avoiding Social Media is like avoiding the installation of telephones because employees might make crank calls. They might abuse phones or social media, but that's what disciplinary procedures are for. You can't not have a telephone and increasingly you can't not engage with Social Media. 
  • Internal social sharing within the company, through some form of internal social network. For example, I have access to an IBM Connections site where I can post a brief comment about my day's activity, a bit like Twitter. I do this fairly regularly, so my colleagues can see what I'm doing, what my frustrations are, what my achievements are, etc. In a geographically dispersed organisation this becomes invaluable for keeping a pulse of what's current. Similarly, I can see what my team are doing through this same channel. We become more aware of each other and of what is happening without needing to schedule the dreaded conference call. I've only just started using this, but its rapidly become so useful I wonder how I managed without it.
  • Personal file sharing - the ability for me to post documents I've created and make them available to others without me having to send an email attachment. Further, the ability of my colleagues to then be notified when I create a new version of a document I've previously shared with them - automatically, without me needing to remember who to send an email to. Make this work and you can eliminate a huge quantity of email traffic and also confusion around what the latest version of a document is - you just go to the social file sharing site and grab the latest.
  • Access to a corporate directory or "who's who". I know companies without this and frankly I've no idea how they work. The ability to look someone up and find out who they are, what they do, which part of the organisation they fit into and get their contact details is essential. Its also important to be able to traverse up and down the management chain - employees that are trying to get things done often need to escalate and find someone they can talk to to resolve issues - so being able to do that is critical.
  • The ability to set up a team website (wiki) on which I can create basic content without any authorisation or controls, in order to publish information I need to get out to colleagues.
These tools are powerful and can be abused. But, really, if you can't trust employees not to create rogue or insulting content then you don't want them anyway. A strong policy and strong response to any early transgressions will soon ensure the message and behavioural expectations get through to everyone. The disadvantages of not trusting employees is a very insular organisation made up of private fiefdoms where information is jealously guarded. That is no model for today's business, which requires more interaction and sharing of data so that all employees become empowered to do their best.

Finally, all of this needs to be made available on my phone/tablet. Not the companies, but mine. The technology choices of these devices are so personal that supporting the ability of employees to use the device of their choosing gives an enormous morale boost. The day I gave back my corporate blackberry in favour of my iPhone was a glorious one. Others may still love their blackberry - the point is that its about personal choice. Technology has advanced to the level where different devices can be supported and allow employees to make their own decisions and use the technology that works for them. Ignore this and they'll end up bringing in their own devices anyway and using them without any controls at all. Its better to accept the inevitable to ensure it happens in a controlled manner.

One final point. All of this requires a supporting culture. Setting people free to collaborate and giving them the tools to enable that is a powerful change for many big companies. It requires a degree of trust and personal responsibility. Management becomes more one of enabling and shepherding rather than of "command and control". These might be departures for some and that might be threatening. But, the value to be gained by empowering and trusting employees is enormous. Support and inspire people and they can do the impossible.  Oppress and control them and they'll become disempowered and resentful. If you don't believe me, watch "The Matrix"!

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