The Social Business Gets Results

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2014-06-19
social business

Communication and collaboration have always been at the center of a successful business strategy. In fact, they've frequently separated industry leaders from laggards.

However, in the rapidly unfolding digital age, it's also clear that electronic interaction is systematically remapping and rewiring the central nervous system of the enterprise. Mobility, unified communications (UC), cloud computing, social business systems and a variety of other collaboration tools are ushering in an array of challenges and opportunities.

"A highly collaborative work environment boosts an organization's value proposition for employees, partners and customers," says Antonia Cusumano, U.S. Technical Industry People & Change Leader for consulting firm PwC. "These tools create a more agile framework that, at some point, becomes a competitive advantage."

But, as many business and IT executives have learned, social business isn't a plug-in technology, and it's not available in shrink wrap from a single vendor. "It's all about assembling the right collection of tools in the right way and tying them to underlying business processes and strategies," states Alex Kass, senior research and development manager at Accenture Technology Labs.

To be sure, navigating the social business environment requires planning, strategy and integration across the enterprise and its IT systems. That's because it touches everything from business processes and reporting structures to how an organization measures and tracks data, information, knowledge and other assets.

There's also a need to understand behavior and how to create an overall framework for sharing. "It is a fundamentally different business and IT model than in times past," Kass points out. "It requires an entirely different mindset."

The idea of communicating and collaborating more effectively through technology certainly isn't new. At the most basic level, phone calls, email, instant messaging, discussion groups, wikis, blogs and other tools have connected workers and outsiders for nearly two decades.

What's more, as information technology has advanced, unified messaging, video conferencing, presence, social streams, document sharing and collaboration solutions have moved into the mainstream. Today, one would be hard pressed to find an enterprise that isn't already using UC technologies and benefiting enormously from them.

However, a collection of discreet tools and systems does not necessarily unlock the full potential of the technology—or connect workers in the most effective ways possible. An organization may realize incremental gains, but not the exponential leaps forward that occur when strategy, processes and technology mesh at a deep level.

"There's a misconception that communication and collaboration tools are simply a way to meet and interact better," Kass explains. "But in order to deliver transformative results, the technology must be embedded and intertwined at a very deep level with processes and applications."

The goal of social business is to create connection points based on dynamic and moment-by-moment needs. This means that the technology must be designed to work in an intuitive and natural way.

A person should be able to pick up one device and move to another to finish a task or project. A team should be able to add participants on a dynamic and ad hoc basis and switch from one set of tools to another without jumping through hoops. Depending on an organization's requirements, this may translate into finding the right guru or source of knowledge within an enterprise, or using presence to see when a group scattered around the world is available for an impromptu video chat.

Getting Back in Sync

At Superior Group, a company focused on workforce management and project management outsourcing, executives realized a few years ago that employees felt increasingly disconnected from headquarters and they faced challenges in communicating and collaborating in an anywhere, anytime manner. At the time, employees were using a mishmash of devices and applications and, consequently, they were often out of sync with one another.

The result, says Frank Gullo, director of digital and mobile strategy, was a growing lack of efficiency and agility. "There were pieces in place for only limited and lightweight collaboration," he explains.

In early 2011, the company moved forward with an intranet and collaboration initiative. After surveying the collaboration landscape, it opted to use IBM Connections and Sametime to address many of its requirements. But it soon became apparent that a social business platform also required a greater focus on mobility, cloud computing and analytics.

"The initial foray into the intranet made it apparent that we had additional needs within the social business arena," Gullo says. "We had to take the strategy and investments further and create more robust capabilities."

The company now relies on a number of technologies and tools to facilitate internal communication, calendaring and file sharing, internal Webcasts and more—and to extend the features to mobile workers. This includes Microsoft SharePoint and Jive Software.

"Previous static Word documents are now shared," Gullo reports. "They are part of a group task list that makes it easier to work on the correct version of the document, know what the current status is and track what else needs to be done."

The process cuts down on time and paper and reduces the risk of problems and errors, he says. In addition, community managers oversee social content, which has blossomed into ideation and innovation blogs, wikis and communities.

Building a Collaborative Culture

Building a platform and an IT infrastructure that supports social business also requires thinking about how to generate maximum engagement. Although seamlessly connected systems are an important part of the picture, it's no bulletin that employees do not adopt tools and technologies at the same pace.

What's more, Millennials and younger workers demonstrate different work styles than older workers. The former group typically gravitates toward mobile apps and social tools, while older workers prefer emails and phone calls. It's critical to design systems and work with employees to bridge these potential gaps.

Todd Shimizu, managing director and market leader for the Technology Sector practice at PwC, says that effective social business incorporates three key concepts. First, there must be a sense of a shared mission and a feeling of a community that's linked together. Second, participants must engage with a feeling of mutual trust and a belief that they will be treated fairly and with respect. Third, an organization must create new assets and additional value as a result of a social business platform.

"It needs to be more than a set of productive conversations," Shimizu points out. "It's about creating a set of relationships that produce greater benefits—and, ultimately, tangible assets. All of this translates into the need for change management, education, training, and mechanisms and metrics for measuring results."

It may also mean creating recognition and rewards for participation and contributions, and finding group and community leaders— Shimizu describes them as Sherpas—who spark conversations, guide discussions and focus questions, issues and tasks. Within this context, "Softer and more human skills are exceptionally important," he notes.

Accenture's Kass says that business and IT leaders must move beyond a "build it and they will come" mindset. "People, including employees, are not looking for new things to do and new ways to work," he says. "They are looking for better and easier ways to work. They want tools that dramatically transform tasks."

One thing is clear: Social business will continue to evolve at a rapid rate. Ultimately, Kass says, it's up to IT to stitch together an integrated communication and collaboration environment that extends to business partners and customers, when appropriate.

"We have reached a point where there are so many communication channels and collaboration tools that organizations and workers risk becoming overwhelmed," he observes. "It's up to IT to build bridges between the different channels and, from an end user's perspective, make the technology invisible."