For so many years, the round trip of information between company and customer has been an arduous process of exchanges from designer, to engineer, to manufacturer, to marketer, to sales person, to customer, to market research and back to the designer.

Each step in this process was fraught with Chinese whispers that corrupted the intended message. This wasn't so much a conversation, more a rickety chain of ideas.

The Internet, high performance public networks, cheap and plentiful devices and a new generation of software delivered through the Internet have changed our perception of how these conversations should be conducted. Genuine conversation and great technology can make amazing things possible. If only we would let it happen in the business world the way it has happened in the consumer world.
Emerging from all the concurrent transformations is the concept of “social business.” As technology, businesses, and workforces evolve, it’s clear that social business is all about conversations and people, not just the technology that manages them.

What Is a Social Business & Where Did It Come From?

A social business is one that facilitates conversations between employees, between employees and customers, between employees and partners, and raises the awareness of their market as a result of those conversations.

A social business harnesses new technologies both inside the firewall and outside to enable those conversations whether people are in the same location or not.

A social business preserves and shares those conversations to constantly learn new ways of doing business, to eliminate bad business practices and introduce new and improving business practices.

A social business focuses the energy of these conversations to solve business problems. The focus is on solutions for employees, customers and channels rather than on mere socialization.

Finally, a social business rewards this behavior and gives recognition to those who contribute the most to these important conversations.

Social businesses are likely to be both technologically experimental and demographically young. The technology stack of a decade ago may have seemed sufficient to build anything -- portals, data stores, structured access, security and massive plumbing. However, these stacks have rarely played a role in the social side of business, instead being deployed in the Systems of Record that preserved and controlled existing business data.

Consumerization of IT

The Consumerization of IT that pulls technology from the outside in has introduced new social ways of looking at technology rather than enabling the creation of new solutions on old technology. Put another way, Consumerization of IT, along with a new generation of open source tools for rapidly creating web and mobile applications, introduced a new generation of products that social businesses adopted as the basis for their solutions.

These tools also are more accommodating of mobile devices and helped bridge the gap for the non-standard, post-PC devices of the "Bring Your Own Device" culture. Social businesses, seeking to exploit the friendliness of social sites and immediacy of mobile technology, are usually seeking the technology solutions that meet their needs rather than going with the biggest brand, or trusted name.

Digitally Savvy Workers

Compounding that trend is the new generation of workers that is replacing older workers of the Baby Boomer generation. With a wave of entrants, the Baby Boomers are no longer in the majority and these new workers have grown up with digital technologies. Having never known, or at least recognized, hierarchical authority in the workplace, the new generation are not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, thus setting the scene for newer ways of collaborating.

They have also grown up sharing and are less inclined to see the risk of doing so. Combine this demographic with enlightened CIOs whose kids have grown up digital, and industries that are less risk adverse in seeking competitive advantage or cost efficiencies, and you have the seeds of social business. These industries might include ultra-competitive financial services companies, high technology organizations or retail where the workforce and customer base may be young.

Social business is coming from the bottom-up, and the top-down. And while “social” might seem like second-nature to incoming generations in our workforce, it’s more complex to implement into existing business processes.

This is the first of two critical considerations for businesses trying to transform into social businesses.

Pick Your Processes Wisely

Of course, all this social stuff may just be innovation for innovation's sake. Is this yet another fad in a long line of business fads? Or is it technology for technology's sake?

Actually, it feels like we are on the cusp of something very different. The impact of social has already been tremendous, toppling whole governments. The technology is moving faster than ever, the business imperative, particularly in the West, has never been higher, and generational change has a tendency to move forward.

On the other hand, unless social businesses improve business processes and the success of the business, social technologies become a distraction rather than a new way of doing business.

And that’s where businesses should start -- by identifying the existing processes within their organization where social business can transform how they operate and introduce new efficiencies, or deliver better results.

AIIM, the Information Professional association on whose Board I serve as Vice Chair, recently conducted research on how social businesses work, in association with Professor Andrew McAfee, the originator of the term Enterprise 2.0. In joint collaboration with some of the key vendors in this space and surveying 451 companies, this research study analyzed where social was being used, where it was successful and when it worked, explained why.

It is still relatively early with perhaps a quarter of businesses, primarily in the US, attempting to transform themselves into social businesses. However, the early results are promising.

Core Business Processes to Build On

McAfee helped synthesize a model of processes that were ripe for change and socialization. Looking at business processes that touch people who are close to us and processes that affect people that are far away from us, a task force led by McAfee identified a few key processes upon which a social business can be built:

Open Innovation

is the use of social software to expand the participation in innovation of products and processes. The design and development of new products and processes has generally been one of collaboration between close colleagues, but expanding the network of participants and capturing their ideas has already yielded major change in organizations and offerings.

Of those who have implemented open innovation, 48% have reported major changes in processes and 34% have had major changes in their external offerings. And it is surprisingly widespread, with 26% already adopting this form of social business change. This leads to the conclusion that this is a good place for businesses to start creating a social business as long as they focus that innovation on a few of the core areas in need of it.

Enterprise Q&A

is a new take on the old idea of the knowledge base. Being able to ask questions and get answers in a wider forum than from the nearest neighbor not only yields better answers, it yields surprising answers. This has made it the social business initiative most widely adopted at 29%, but also the most powerful.

45% of the respondents who have implemented an Enterprise Q&A have said that they were extremely satisfied with the results. 60% of those that provide rewards for answers said they were extremely satisfied with many answers coming from unexpected resources. By rewarding through recognition and gamification, these companies have been able to get answers faster and react to new problems faster.

Marketing and Sales

is actually a business process that can benefit tremendously from social business processes and yet only 18% actually use social tools in sharing marketing and sales knowledge and in serving customers with better information. Much of this has to do with the culture of sales, which is very focused on individual contribution. In addition, organizations involved in the research reported that prior to social business initiatives, communication between sales and marketing was either poor or very poor.

After using social business processes, 60% reported that communication was going well or very well. Of those that rewarded contribution, 79% reported that the initiatives went well or very well. Assets in sales and marketing are plentiful and very valuable, but also very fragmented. Breaking down barriers between organizations can yield tremendous business and customer benefits.

Some common lessons in all of these processes also come to the fore. Focus is critical to the success of these initiatives.

An open invitation to merely socialize only leads to confusion on the part of the participants. Rewarding and recognizing a participant’s contribution yields big benefits in getting users to come back and contribute even more. Being open in terms of who can participate, particularly customers, is also important as this gets the critical mass that is so important for a successful social initiative.

In addition, patience is very important as putting up the tools is only the beginning. Cultural change in the form of recognition, collaboration and patience is absolutely critical, but new technologies, although not an answer by themselves, are very important. My next article will explore which kind of technologies contribute the most on an enterprise's journey to becoming a Social Business.

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