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Social business: why you can't afford to ignore it

From smart phones and tablet PCs to laptops, and from one part of the planet to another, new forms of interaction are helping companies thrive in today's instrumented and interconnected world. And with more intelligent devices in the hands of more people, social networking is a phenomena that cannot be ignored.

The world currently spends 110 billion minutes on social networks and blog sites per month. This equates to 22 percent of all time spent online, or one in every 4.5 minutes. Readers who have teenagers don't need these numbers to understand the impact of social networks. But can a medium so captivating to teens – and designed by individuals only slightly older – have relevance to serious midsize businesses?

When social networking evolves into social business, the answer is most certainly yes. And when companies apply social business principles to clearly defined business objectives, they can obtain measurable results.

At the highest level, social business isn't so much about deploying new technology as it is about adopting a new attitude. In practice, this translates into engaging customers and partners more deeply, helping employees be more effective, and improving operational efficiency. As David Via, IBM Sales Executive for Collaboration Solutions puts it, "Social business is really taking new technologies like microblogging, social networking, blogs and wikis, even RSS feeds, and applying them to businesses of all size – from enterprises down to midsize companies.

Via explains, "It's not a matter of ripping out what you have, whether it's IBM's or from other vendors, but extending it, adding new capabilities, integrating those applications or those services. Some of our long time customers already have a solid start to "social" when they move their Notes/Domino implementations to Version 8.5.x, which delivers XPages in the application development environment to build Web & even more mobile applications. "

Increased engagement with customers and partners

In a recent IBM survey, Inside the Midmarket: A 2011 Perspective, customer relations management (CRM) was cited by 62 percent of midsize businesses as a priority. Few would argue that greater customer engagement makes good business sense. But the old mode of engagement – essentially "broadcasting” through advertising, static web sites, sales presentations and the like – is now inadequate. Says Via, "By some estimates, as much as 70 percent of the content that's out on the public web about a given brand is user-generated. You no longer control that public perception of your brand.” In today's highly instrumented and interconnected world, more and more of those public perceptions reside in social networks.

To succeed in this new landscape, it's a business imperative to join the conversation that's already taking place. And the good news is that few businesses need to start from scratch. Rather, they can leverage and enhance the networks and relationships with customers, partners and suppliers that have always existed, making use of the increasingly important social modes of communication now available.

Beyond gaining fans or followers, a social business uses software and hardware tools to create new pathways centered on people and the relationships between them?helping to solve the persistent problem of searching for the information needed to accomplish tasks, make decisions, and inspire new ideas.

Higher levels of engagement deliver real business results. Social tools enable companies to understand and meet customer needs in real time, and increase customer loyalty in the process. They connect these companies with a whole new source of ideas for innovation. They can also help them track what people are saying about them. And, importantly, these tools are not financially out of reach for midsize businesses. As Via points out, "A lot of social business services can be bought over the cloud, even things like analytics that monitor the public perceptions of your brand.

"It's not a matter of ripping out what you have, but extending it, adding new capabilities."

Boosting productivity through a culture of sharing

Midsize companies can obtain benefits from increased internal engagement as well. Speaking about his own small team at IBM, Via says, "We've seen a huge value in things as simple as microblogging, updating my status so people know where I am. I may be meeting with a customer, and they can give me information that helps me to have a better meeting. Without social business it would never happen.”

Without intending to do so, many midsize companies have, over time, created unnecessary barriers to sharing information. Often these barriers exist because different departments have adopted incompatible IT systems, creating silos of information. They can also be the result of geographically dispersed teams. When employees can eliminate these barriers and connect through a network with the right person who has the right expertise and information to solve a problem in real time, productivity increases dramatically.

Via gives the example of a manufacturer who used social tools to lower the weight of their product. "Even through they were not a huge company, they did ship things overseas, and shipping costs can be very high. By people collaborating around the country and across national borders, they were able to save money in ways they hadn't even thought of.”

For many executives, openness is one of the most troubling aspects of social business. But becoming a social business doesn't mean abandoning common sense and, for example, creating a forum where angry customers can post complaints that may not even be accurate. As Via says, "No one's advocating putting up a wiki with all the salaries of your executives.”

While preserving necessary boundaries, however, there are many opportunities for more sharing that can improve efficiency and boost both the top and bottom lines. Customer service groups often benefit from an ongoing exchange about problems and solutions in real-time, instead of relying on more formal (and older) sources of information. Processes involving engineering or new product development can be more efficient, with faster time-to-market, if geographically dispersed suppliers and in-house engineers have a forum for exchanging ideas. Sales teams are more effective and save time when they are directly linked to other departments for instant updates on pricing, product availability or customer creditworthiness.

Getting Started

Obviously, grasping the principles of social business and putting them into action are two different challenges. "I recommend to our customers starting inside of your business,” says Via. "Find the trendsetters, the role models, the people who are really key leaders and set the direction of the organization. Chances are, they're already using social technology personally. Turn them into your evangelists for social business, and you'll reap the benefits much more quickly.

Today's businesses are more globally interconnected than ever before, and social networking services are on track to replace email as their primary communications method. This approach shifts the focus from static content to the source of the energy, creativity and decision making that moves a business forward: people. In a social business, people not only find what they need, but also discover valuable expertise and information they weren't even looking for to solve problems in entirely new ways.

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