Thursday, May 10, 2007

Caught in the Web - Is Business Embracing Social Media?

“Every day there’s a new topic that someone wants to talk about and be part of.”
Jeff Schick, vp social computing software, IBM Corporation

Ecademy, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, Xing, Ryze. For many of us, the names in this list will be increasingly familiar but they are only the tip of the iceberg. While social networking technology has been used by a number of businesses for the best part of the last decade, the rise in its popularity over the last two years has been tremendous. From teenagers keeping in touch with their school and university friends to their parents boosting their business profile, everyone is joining the social networking revolution.

Where is this ‘revolution’ leading? I will discuss the benefits to the younger ‘MySpace Generation’ in the next in this series of blogs, and will also look at the social benefits in a future article; but what about the benefits to the business community?

In my recent interview with Jeff Schick we looked at how his business has embraced social networking to help make their internal communication and systems more effective.

It is becoming more apparent that IBM is not on its own. A March 2007 survey of corporates for Melcrum, a communications industry researcher, showed that big business is moving quickly towards fully embracing social media. 52% of respondents anticipated raising their social media budgets over the next twelve months, while 55% are already using blogs or plan to do so in the next year.

Jonathan Schwartz, CEO and President of Sun Microsystems, has a very popular blog that was used during his transition into the CEO role, enabling employees across the organisation to get to know him better, more quickly than through traditional media.

Melcrum’s Managing Director, Robin Crumby, points to the influence of the social networks in encouraging the corporates. “Big business has taken note of the popularity of sites like MySpace, YouTube and Bebo and is beginning to figure out how to integrate the same functionality and networking tools with their corporate intranets.”

Despite this encouraging trend, larger business still has some catching up to do. According to a recent survey carried out by The University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research, the US’s fastest-growing private companies are using social media, including blogs, social networking and podcasting, at a rate more than twice that of Fortune 500 companies.

Greg Verdino, VP of emerging channels at Digitas believes that businesses of all sizes need to focus on how to use this media effectively. “Every company needs to have a deliberate social-media strategy. These venues — blogs, podcasts, and all the other next big-thing things — are not something to be treated as one-off pilot projects. They should be considered as part of a holistic approach, one that seeks first to understand how the individuals that make up a company’s market are using the new media and then to understand what benefits can be reaped by the company from using some or all of them.”

In our conversation, Jeff Schick looked more at the holistic approach to social media that companies can take.

“I think that, with the diversity of social networks that exist today, an organisation that deploys a social network could have a zone that’s focused on the internal aspects of the company, a zone that’s focused on the way it may interact with its partners and contractors and a zone which allows them to be the social network and its public face to its current clients and new opportunities.

“There’s a concept of creating federated social networks that I think is a very important idea that I’m working on currently. I’m going to help drive standardisation within the people that build capabilities in the social software space.”

As more businesses encourage their employees to use online communities, there are bound to be fears that they will prove to be a distraction or could affect a business’s reputation if abused. Many companies, such as IBM and the BBC, recognise this and, rather than ban the use of social networks, they have very clear guidelines on what is permissible and what isn’t.

Jeff Schick doesn’t share such concerns. “I would tell you,” said Jeff, “that in the clients that we’ve worked with to date, as well as what we’ve seen within IBM, I think that we see the exact opposite.

“While a person might be interrupted because they are a recognised expert in a certain particular area, when there is information required by another individual in the company, the efficiency and productivity involved in building that network and that fabric of interaction provides a more efficient and productive model for people to do their work. The organisation is improved holistically, by matching people who know to people who need to know.”

Graham Jones, a UK based Internet Psychologist, feels that businesses need to put aside their reservations and embrace the new wave of web technology.

“Many businesses see things like social networks as a technological fix; or they reckon that a social network is merely a fad, or passing phase. Hence they don’t put in the effort to ensuring that their firms benefit.

“What’s needed is to forget that the social networks use technology; they are, in fact, merely an extension of normal human behaviour. As such, they are one of the most natural forms of Internet technology we have.

“For that reason alone, businesses need to grasp social networks with both hands because if they don’t, employees and customers alike will walk away, going towards online businesses that use technology that behaves more naturally – i.e. they use social networks.”

So, will the current growth of social networks continue in the same way? As the big organisations start to stamp their mark on the market, industry as a whole is likely to follow; but the expectation is that we will continue to see a host of options within social media. Something which is still looked upon with cynicism by many in business will soon become the norm.

Jeff Schick doesn’t see an end to people starting their own networks but does see more standardisation at the corporate end. “There are social networks that span multiple communities of interest and there are social networks that span a single community of interest. You’ll not stop communities or people who are interested in a certain focus area from forming.

“What I think will happen is that the companies offering those capabilities might consolidate and a set of best practices on the tools that are available may become apparent. Surely they’ll be a level of interoperability and standardisation that evolves between them.

“But I look at the number of communities of interest and you know that every day there’s a new topic that someone wants to talk about and be part of. “

No comments:

Post a Comment