In just a few years, social media has come to dominate many of our personal communications. We communicate and collaborate daily, mostly productively but occasionally we just use it to procrastinate! Most organisations, however, still view social media as a threat to productivity, intellectual capital, security, privacy, management authority or regulatory compliance. They are happy to let marketing handle the whole messy issue.
It is this assumption – that social media is something to do with ‘marketing’ – that limits and obscures social media’s real potential as a mass collaboration tool.
A popular comparison is with the telephone: when it was first adopted as a business tool, companies set up a department to handle the new technology. Eventually, voice telephony was used by everyone, and every department, as a real-time information tool.
Currently, businesses – and certainly business schools and think tanks – are worrying that business is organised on principles that no longer apply – the principles of the closed, secretive, hierarchical enterprise.
This model of using online collaboration to open an enterprise’s boundaries and involve customers, prospective customers, suppliers, distributors and other stakeholders in the enterprise’s core functions goes against the traditional management grain but there are enterprises, and CEOs, who have anticipated what is coming in terms of social media technologies.
A well-known electronics firm has established a worldwide community of design engineers, DesignSpark, a social media initiative that is transforming their business model: rather than continuing to use direct marketing and online catalogues alone to sell products, it has attracted 75,000 potential customers into its digital orbit, established relationships based on mutual interests and profited from the expertise of its online community.
So, if an enterprise is able to use social media throughout its organisation to create value, it can claim to be what the Harvard Business Review calls a social organisation. Social organisations harness social media platforms to create and exploit mass collaboration, something that Gartner predicts will be the next evolutionary pillar defining how works gets done around the world.
There is a danger of practising what has been dubbed the “provide and pray” approach. Leaders and managers provide access to social technology through a tightly-guarded, compliance-based firewall. They pray that a community forms and that community interactions somehow lead to business value.
The lesson is that communities do not form around technologies: they grow and thrive when a compelling purpose is articulated. Such a purpose addresses a widely-recognised need or opportunity and is specific and meaningful enough to motivate people to participate.
Social media collaboration challenges enterprises to find their purpose in an evolving business environment – like RS Components did with DesignSpark. Finding a successful formula, and purpose, is much harder than providing the technology, learning the tools and understanding etiquette.
It requires a purpose road-mapping technique involving the whole management team but, once formulated, the ‘purpose’ shows how community collaboration – and related business value – can evolve over time and provide critical guidance on the required risks and investment. It also gives clarity to lower-level social media implementation decisions such as technology selection, content seeding, policy, moderation and the marketing communications plan.
That is not so say that the ongoing study of social media techniques, platforms and technologies is irrelevant: just that social media is now a strategic business element and should be led from the boardroom.
Finding a purpose in a collaborative, open environment is a business decision and leaders must get involved in strategically pursuing the most appropriate options. Don’t leave social media to the self-proclaimed gurus: it’s now everyone’s business.