Before we can speak about what’s working in social business, we need to understand what a social business is. While there are quite a few definitions out there, to me social business is just a natural evolution of business. Peter Drucker said that “the purpose of a business is to create a customer,” and this hasn’t changed.

What has changed is the way we create customers, retain them and get them to create more customers on our behalf. Social helps us to understand what the market needs and creates better ways to deliver it to the market. A social business is one that’s able to learn, create and organize itself in a way that can deliver the most value. While there’s no one silver bullet, here are some commonalities observed across social businesses today:

Focus on Business Value

Over the past few years there’s been an awakening: people have moved on from asking “what is social business?” to “what do I do about it now? How do I integrate this into my business?” The line between real business and social business is diminishing,” Charlene Li.

As companies are maturing their approaches, it’s increasingly important to fight the temptation to do social for the sake of social. In fact, according to a recent study by Deloitte and MIT Sloan Management Review, titled “Social Business: What Are Companies Really Doing,” failure to use social to solve a true problem and not integrating into existing processes are some of the leading causes of social business failure. It’s important to clearly articulate social strategy for the business -- what problems the company will address with social and how. When you are using social to meet a business goal, you will measure against repeatable business value vs. focusing on vanity metrics, such as numbers of likes and posts.

The Social CEO

If business leaders are expected to set a clear business strategy that links social to business goals, the C-suite must exhibit social leadership by 1) becoming the ultimate social brand ambassador internally and externally and 2) supporting social initiatives. A recent IBM report highlights that CEOs are recognizing the need to engage openly -- internally and externally -- as they set the tone for the organization. More than half of surveyed CEOs are planning to use technology to facilitate deeper collaboration.

Recently, I spoke to Erin Grotts from SUPERVALU who shared how CEO Craig Herkert’s turnaround vision resulted in the company adopting Yammer. The aforementioned Deloitte / MIT study goes into detail demonstrating the business value that was captured across the enterprise -- from customer experience, to marketing, to innovation and leadership. Results speak for themselves, with participating stores yielding 13% more sales revenue than nonparticipating stores.

Voluntary Adoption is Key

There are a few ways that social enters an enterprise -- through an employee, business unit, or even brought in by the CEO, as was the case with SUPERVALU’s case. However the cause is championed, voluntary adoption is key to success -- unlike other software, you simply can’t make people use social media. To help employees be effective with social platforms, help them see what’s in it for them and pay attention to what tools they gravitate towards. Employees are bringing their own devices to work, and they won’t hesitate to go around the official channel if something else helps them get the job done. Business tools need to take a note from consumer social tools to become more flexible, user-friendly and intuitive -- check out this recent article from Peter Fenton.

Social Replaces Things That are Broken

As we established above, social strategy needs to support business objectives. Social especially demonstrates repeatable business value in fixing processes that are broken or nonexistent:

  • Social intranet: Progressive communications professionals recognize that employees are looking for a two-way conversation and for an opt-in method of information delivery to replace the mandatory push of email. As a result, the notion of the intranet is becoming more social, and some businesses have started to replace their intranets with enterprise social networks.
  • Innovation: Since social helps connect people inside and outside the company, innovation is no longer the job of a few; rather, it’s everyone’s job. With social platforms, companies now have unprecedented access to their customers, partners and the entire value chain. Customer, employee and partner communities bring to light things that don’t work or don’t exist in effective and efficient ways, and provide an opportunity to co-create solutions.
  • Customer experience: Social platforms help understand customer feedback and needs, deliver better products to more people, provide support to more people faster and iterate quickly. All this hinges on the ability to successfully deal with exceptions. You don’t need social to prescribe predictable process; the real value comes from dealing effectively with the unknown and the unexpected.
  • Eliminate blindspots: As a result of organizational complexity, business leaders don’t always get insights from the field -- or don’t get them in a timely manner. Social platforms reduce these organizational blindspots by providing real-time information and help turn this information into actionable insights.

Adaptability is the New Target

It takes a special organization to effectively manage exceptions and innovate, constantly adapting to change. To adapt to a constantly moving target, you need to empower your people to make decisions and execute autonomously, rallying around a unifying goal. By doing this, you will finally stop playing catch up and become proactive. I may be biased, but I think this talk from our CTO Adam Pisoni about creating an adaptable organization is worth a watch. It’s not just Adam who thinks so; McKinsey lists ability to self-organize and disappearance / flattening or formal hierarchies as top trends for the next 3-5 years.

CIOs as Business Innovators

Organizations that are seeing success in social tend to have progressive CIOs who have embraced a role change from sourcing and administering of technology to facilitating of innovation through technology. CIOs need to deliver systems their users want to use; these systems need to solve business problems, while scaling well. Because they need to be adaptable, they can’t be mired in unnecessary complexity and feature bloat. CIO jobs are hard; boards of directors are expecting them to build flexible systems that save money while helping gain a competitive edge.

Peter Mancini states that this new CIO needs to have technical and domain knowledge, while knowing “how the pieces of a process that spans the worlds of Systems of Record and Systems of Engagement should fit together. Gartner estimates that the demand for this new breed of information professional will grow by 50 percent by 2015.”

Cultural Alignment Key to Success

Success of social initiatives depends directly on the culture of the organization. Based on the Deloitte / MIT report, “companies that are already deriving value from social business have cultures that tend to be more open to new ideas and more collaborative than other companies.” Social can threaten the status quo and individuals’ attachment to power that comes from being gatekeepers. Companies that can shift from hoarding information to sharing as a default, are going to see more success in implementation of their social strategy.

Getting Work Done

As perception of social shifts from superfluous towards a business enabler, users must be able to get work done inside of their social apps easier than without. The notion of getting work done goes beyond creating a task list to include extending usability and access to information. Social apps must help remote employees and employees on the go take advantage of information exchange through cloud and mobile technologies. We are no longer tethered to our desktops and we seldom sit together; how we use technology and data must reflect this.

Focus on Community

If collaborative discourse is the new normal, communities are the train tracks that bring all the pieces together, and community managers are the train conductors. Successful organizations take care to carefully create the right community environments and treat community managers as enablers who extend the line of sight across the ecosystem. The McKinsey report shows as the #1 organizational change the blurring boundaries between employees, vendors and customers.


Companies that implement social successfully don’t treat it as a silo. Social tools don’t exist in a vacuum and must integrate with existing Systems of Record. Integrations don’t mean just integrating technologies, but also processes and data structures. If people are to have longer lines of vision across the enterprise, and beyond the enterprise into the ecosystem -- data must flow freely across business applications.

Now, back to you reader! What’s working for you? How do you know it’s working?

Editor's Note: Read more of Maria's social business insights, including: It Takes Collaboration to Be a Social Business.