Social is big, and getting bigger.

Social is sweeping into the enterprise with astonishing speed. Corporations, government agencies and nonprofits are using social tools such as blogs, wikis and Twitter-like activity streams to collaborate internally, with both customers and the general public. It's an undeniable trend and it's quickly picking up speed.

The opportunity is immense. Most enterprise technology is in the business of automating human tasks: taking the creativity out of work and replacing it with rigid, formal process. Social software does just the opposite; it fosters, encourages and empowers the natural creativity of human beings working with each other towards a common goal.

Yvette Cameron of Constellation Research describes it this way:

For the first time, technologies are becoming available that better align the way people naturally work and think. As humans, we're social creatures. Until recently, technologies didn't really support that. A lot of the processes that we use in our business applications are about automating paperwork, as opposed to really fostering collaboration [and the] rapid discovery of information; getting to the people, content and the knowledge that's needed to get work done."

Enterprise social software is key to businesses of all sizes because it enables new relationships to be created amongst your employees. Classic examples where enterprise social software can help your company and your employees become more productive include: getting a question answered by the most knowledgeable person, joining a new cross-functional team or getting help resolving a complex customer problem.

Who Owns Social in the Enterprise?

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Most enterprise technologies have natural owners inside the enterprise. Sales owns sales force automation. Finance owns the financial software. Marketing owns marketing automation. It’s not exactly rocket science.

But social software is different. It doesn’t map to a single business process. Social software is all about unlocking the potential of all employees across an entire organization -- whether they’re in Sales, Marketing, R&D, Product, Support, Operations or whatever.

While social software may be new, human beings aren’t. We've been walking the earth for about 200,000 years, give or take. What's new is that for the first time we have the tools to collaborate effectively at large scale, without the benefit of physical proximity; and when we collaborate, each of our efforts becomes exponentially more valuable because we build on each other.

Large organizations are also nothing new, and for the past hundred or so years most of them have created a special group whose sole purpose is to optimize for the value of its people. This group is called Human Resources, but is better known as HR.

HR and enterprise social software were made for each other. Both are in the same business of making talent more productive.

“Aha!” you say, “But isn’t everyone in the enterprise trying to make talent more productive? So really each line of business should own social for itself!”

But remember that enterprise social is all about network effects. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter succeed precisely because everyone is on the same platform. People participate in the network because everyone else is participating. There’s no solution without scale. And the same is true in the enterprise. It’s only when we get everyone on a common platform that companies can offer a compelling value proposition.

HR can deliver that scale. Unlike lines of business, HR has responsibility for the entire enterprise. Moreover, HR already owns crucial data on each individual: pictures, contact information, roles, reporting relationships, resumes. That makes HR the natural owner of enterprise social.

Huge Strategic Opportunity for HR

While compliance-oriented HR departments see only risks in social, a growing number of strategically-minded HR leaders see the opportunity of a lifetime.

Social offers HR an extraordinary opportunity to move beyond back-office process, and wield real, positive influence on the entire organization in a fundamentally strategic way. Arguably for the first time in its history, HR can fundamentally drive not only who works in a company, but also how work gets done -- every day, every department.

Jim Lundy of Aragon Research describes it this way:

For years, HCM managers have needed to step up to the executive suite and provide substantive and meaningful business leadership. Yet HCM’s primary focus has remained stuck in its historical role, lacking the ability to move the organization, and its people resources, toward being a more engaged and productive community."

There’s a wealth of ways in which HR can use social to assume this mantle of business leadership. Here are a few examples:

  • Enterprise profile: Creating one consistent, authoritative profile for each employee that pulls together everything the enterprise knows about that person
  • Social onboarding: Accelerating time to productivity for new hires by exposing them to documentation, conversations and content created by their new colleagues
  • Informal learning: Augmenting structured learning courses and modules with unstructured interactions and peer mentoring
  • Social communications: Replacing traditional static, out-of-date intranets with dynamic social Intranets that are a real work tool for getting things done
  • Social performance management: Harvesting such social activity as liking, following, badging and recommending to identify an individual’s value to the organization
  • Expert location: Using tagging, conversations and search to surface specialized experts and expertise across the organization

This Opportunity is Going to Take Some Work

Part of the work is on the technology side. Vendors are just beginning to introduce social into HR technologies. It’s still in its early days and these products need some time to mature.

But the bigger challenge is organizational. There are lots of different departments vying for social these days. Marketing is claiming enterprise social as an extension of its activity on public social media. Sales is claiming social as a better way to track and manage customer interactions. IT is claiming social as an innovative new technology. There’s lots of competition out there.

HR will need to fight for its seat at the social table, but it’s a fight worth having. The direction of enterprise social will define HR’s role for the next decade. Will HR retreat to the back office, and simply focus on compliance and transactional automation? Or will HR seize the opportunity to become a strategic player in the organization, driving the cultural norms and collaborative patterns of the modern organization?

The choice is yours, HR. Game on!

Image courtesy of tovovan

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more by Michael? Try Breaking Down Knowledge Silos with the Social Layer