Social Business Is at the Center of the Enterprise

by: Samuel Greengard


Social business is rapidly moving into the mainstream of the enterprise, and the IT organization must play a key role in creating an effective strategy.

Social business has clearly moved into the mainstream of the modern enterprise. The ability of different teams, groups and departments to interact—both internally and with the outside world—increasingly determines whether organizations merely survive or thrive.

“Digital technology requires more sophisticated digital interaction,” observes Mary Hamilton, managing director for Accenture Technology Labs. “Social business and social media are at the center of things. We are seeing enormous maturation of the technology and how it is being used by the enterprise.”

To be sure, the tractor beam of social business is unavoidable. Today, the concept has viability across numerous areas and virtually all corners of the enterprise and the business marketplace.

Social business concepts increasingly provide a window into data, information and knowledge. Communication and collaboration tools—including blogs, wikis, message boards, apps and more—are delivering broader and deeper insights than anyone could have imagined a decade ago.

“The end goal is to have deeply engaged customers and deeply engaged employees—and bridge the two groups effectively,” says Sean O’Driscoll, a principal and partner at consulting firm PwC.

Not surprisingly, the task can prove extraordinarily challenging. Syncing business processes, technology tools and cultural factors requires fresh thinking and an innovative approach to IT. What’s more, maximizing the return from social media requires an organization to plug into a variety of other tools, including mobility, cloud computing and big data. “It’s requires a broad scope,” he adds.

One of the stumbling points for many organizations attempting to navigate today’s digital environment is a tendency to view business in a transactional way. The problem with this approach, O’Driscoll says, is that it tends to create greater disengagement.

“Today, it’s critical to establish a persistent connection and an ongoing relationship,” he explains. “The digital environment introduces an ‘always on’ aspect that cannot be ignored. The most successful organizations tap into it and use it to create greater value within the organization, as well as in the outside world.”

Part of the equation is using social tools to bridge channels, devices and environments. Because communication and collaboration now cut across every corner of the enterprise, it’s important to understand where ideas originate, how they evolve, and how employees and customers can contribute to innovation and overall knowledge.

PwC’s O’Driscoll describes the underlying agenda as “co-creation” and says that, regardless of whether the focus is on building, selling or servicing a product, “social concepts are now central to every business function, rather than a specific corner of the enterprise.”

Integrating Digital Technologies

One company that has turned the page on social business is Pearson PLC, a United Kingdom publishing company that operates in 70 countries and under more than 200 brands, including Financial Times Press, Penguin Books and Prentice Hall. Over the last several years, the firm has made a number of key acquisitions, while looking to integrate digital collaboration tools and technologies across a disparate and scattered workforce.

That translated mostly to email, messaging, newsletters and a mishmash of intranets and corporate directories. With 40,000-plus employees speaking 80-plus languages, the challenges were mounting, says Kim England, head of internal community and collaboration.

“We were finding that it was increasingly difficult for people to find the information they needed to do their job well,” she says. “We also recognized that communication among new employees in the organizations we had acquired was seriously limited.”

As a result, employees couldn’t find subject matter experts they needed, people didn’t know about products that already existed, and product development and other tasks took place in a haphazard and often chaotic way. “In many cases, people could not find the information they needed on the intranets,” she adds, “so we were constantly reinventing the wheel or spinning our wheels. We knew we had to make some type of change.”

That translated into a social enterprise solution from Jive Software. The system, dubbed “Neo,” went live in 2011. It has transformed interactions within the company—and improved connections with customers. Today, employees are accomplishing things faster and better, England says.

“We have a high level of engagement, and people are able to access the information they need when and where they need it,” she reports. England adds that about 75 to 80 percent of employees participate in the social community on any given day. Pearson is now set to expand the social business tools to external users, including publishers and authors, via Jive’s Bridging module.

While the initiative posed a few cultural challenges—including resistance from some managers who initially viewed the initiative as “another tool to embed in my daily life”—England says that community managers have helped communicate the value of the system and aided employees in understanding how it is relevant and useful to them in a practical way.

“When they see that it removes roadblocks to their work and makes their life easier, they are typically very receptive,” she notes. In addition, Pearson has turned to gamification techniques and rewards to boost participation.

Collaboration Rules

Achieving maximum results in the social business arena requires a focus on a number of key factors. First, it’s critical to understand how communication takes place, and how the right tools and technologies can rewire and remap enterprise processes.

Remarkably, and seemingly paradoxically, the right mix of systems can introduce a sense of connectedness and intimacy that wouldn’t have been possible in the past. It’s possible to create a more personalized and customized environment by providing the right information to the right people in the right context. In many cases, PwC’s O’Driscoll says, this requires new partnerships and an entirely different data ecosystem.

Accenture’s Hamilton says that organizations must fully map how communication takes place and understand employee and customer behavior at a level that hasn’t been required in the past. Whereas interactions used to take place over the phone or in person—or from a single source, such as a bank manager or doctor—they now splinter into various channels, devices and media.

Within this new but still emerging order—and with deeper and broader data insights—determining who owns and manages the relationship changes. For example, “A hospital is no longer just a health care provider,” Hamilton explains. “It becomes a health and wellness brand with engagement across the entire value chain.”

One of the remarkable things about social business is that it provides a telescope and microscope into a world that previously wasn’t visible. Organizations that pull the right data from social business systems and use those tools to drive decision making suddenly gain the ability to transcend a transactional, analog mentality. They are able to measure value in different ways and understand the business more fully.

PwC’s O’Driscoll says that this environment requires new thinking, new skill sets, different metrics, and a complete rewiring of information systems and data flow. It also demands that an enterprise break down its silos and recognize and reward contributors and customers differently.

“Social business capabilities are now at the center of everything,” he concludes.

About the Author

Samuel Greengard, a contributing writer for Baseline, writes about business, technology and other topics. His forthcoming book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press), will be released in the spring of 2015.

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