Social Media Is Good Business

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2012-08-28

By Samuel Greengard

Operating a design and engineering firm with offices in more than 100 countries is a big challenge. Not only is it necessary to coordinate people and projects, it's also critical to share data, information and knowledge.

"The key to success is finding ways to help people connect, share and collaborate," says Brad Vaughan, CIO at Black & Veatch, which pulled down $2.6 billion in revenues in 2011 and ranks number 18 in the world for design-build firms.

About a year ago, Black & Veatch, headquartered in Overland Park, Kan., embraced social media in a major way. The company rolled out an internal Facebook-like system—built on Microsoft SharePoint and My Site—that allows its more than 9,000 employees to post their credentials and expertise online, along with their location, education, licensing and phone number.

They can also add whitepapers, presentations and any other materials in areas as diverse as telecommunications and wastewater management. Other employees can search out the expertise they require and either download the desired content or contact the person.

For example, an engineer in Santiago, Chile, might contact another professional in San Diego to get information about the use of specific materials or learn about a good restaurant to take a client. They can also use instant messaging or video conferencing to interact in a more immediate manner.

"Finding the right information is no longer a hit-or-miss proposition," Vaughan says. "People can share information in a natural and intuitive way. Social media tools are making the world smaller and the company more efficient."

Over the last few years, social media has gone mainstream. Forrester Research reports that sales of software to manage corporate social networks will grow 61 percent annually and reach $6.4 billion in sales by 2016.

Companies large and small from a variety of industries are embracing technologies and tools to amp up communication and collaboration. These include external-facing sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+, as well as internal systems that build on collaboration and knowledge management tools.

To be sure, social media can’t be ignored. "It is changing business and the enterprise in significant ways," says Kelly Dempski, director of Accenture Technology Labs. "Because an organization pulls different levers and uses different tools with social media, it's important to design a strategy and build in protections to ensure that it's used effectively and securely."

Greater Profitability and Success

As the Internet has evolved and mobile tools have taken off, social media has emerged as a significant force in the business world. McKinsey & Co. found that heavy use of social media correlates with greater profitability and success—though the vast majority of companies are still early in the adoption curve.

At Black & Veatch, there's a focus on both internal- and external-facing social media. The company uses Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Orkut, LinkedIn and YouTube for a variety of marketing and human resources initiatives, says Fredrik Winterlind, vice president of global marketing and communications. These tools help the company stay in touch with customers and business partners spread across the globe. "They have become valuable tools," he notes.

But it's the internal capability that is revolutionizing the way this organization operates. "The use of social media internally has created new and powerful ways to collaborate,” Winterlind says. “In the past, knowledge sharing wasn't possible—or it would take days or weeks, and involve strings of e-mails and faxes. Now workers have a direct link to one another through the MySite application."

Employees share documents, files and expertise, he adds, but social media also helps bridge language and cultural differences. Ultimately, it creates a more connected and cohesive organization.

At present, about 1,300 Black & Veatch professionals use the system, including remotely via a virtual private network (VPN). The company has developed clear, concise policies on social media use. The four-page document includes a discussion of what's appropriate to post, what's contained in a good post and the types of things that are best avoided.

For example, the firm discourages pseudonyms, requests that employees reveal any vested interest they have in a topic or discussion, speak in the first person and make it clear that they are stating their own opinions. It also requests that employees carefully consider what they post. “Social computing blurs many of the traditional boundaries between internal and external communications,” it states.

According to a recent Gartner survey, 60 percent of companies will oversee employees' use of social media by 2015. At present, only 10 percent monitor workers for security breaches. Gartner Vice President Andrew Walls noted in the report that companies must walk the line between legally permissible monitoring and a potential backlash from employees who perceive tight monitoring as a violation of their right to free speech and privacy.

Gary Loveland, U.S. Advisory Security Leader for PwC, says a social media strategy is the sum of policies, security practices and training. "There's no technology that can completely control what employees post—particularly when they visit sites from their computers at home," he says. "Social media can be highly beneficial, but it comes with a certain amount of risk. The goal is to minimize the risk through a holistic approach to security."

Feeding a Social Future

Another company that has acquired a taste for social media is Newly Weds Foods, an international provider of seasonings, spices and breadcrumbs for major restaurants, fast-food chains and private labels. It operates 27 plants around the world (including the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Thailand), and has 19 regional R&D labs with a total of more than 1,500 employees. Professionals, particularly those working in R&D, frequently need to discuss projects and seek out answers and advice when they are working on new formulas.

The company relies on IBM SmartCloud for Social Business to manage profiles, communities, microblogging, activities, email, Web meetings, instant messaging, file sharing and other tasks. "The collaboration and social media capabilities allow us to develop products and respond to customer needs faster," says Newly Weds business analyst Bob Brindza.

In some cases, activities and interactions that used to take days or weeks now occur in minutes or hours. The company has also cut travel and meeting costs by 10 percent by using online collaboration tools.

Because of the highly sensitive and proprietary nature of its products and recipes, Newly Weds places a premium on security. IBM has its own stringent protections in place, including firewalls and endpoint security, but Newly Weds also has specific policies, nondisclosure agreements and monitoring tools to keep intellectual property and proprietary information in check.

Some companies are also turning to social media for customer support. iWin, a developer and publisher of casual online and mobile games, including Family Feud on Facebook and Jojo's Fashion Show, uses social media for market research, as well as to amp up its customer support, says Markus Taylor, customer support manager. Overall, the company has garnered more than 5 million Facebook “Likes” across its portfolio of games.

"Social media has emerged as a major part of our business," Taylor says. The company uses software from Parature, along with analytics tools, to understand and react to customer needs on a dynamic basis. "Social media provides highly interactive tools that allow us to understand and get the message out to users quickly and effectively," he explains.

iWin also uses dashboards and analytics from Kontagent, Facebook Insights and Appdata to detect changes in usage patterns, as well as any rapid spike in support requests. The company can then tweak its offerings or adapt its IT infrastructure appropriately.

Accenture’s Dempski believes that companies must fully embrace social media and fashion a comprehensive and holistic strategy that spans everything from how it will be used to security issues, including the use of mobile devices. This means identifying who is authorized to use systems and content, how they're allowed to use it and what gets posted.

These rules and policies may vary, depending on internal groups or the individuals with whom employees interact. "The problem that many organizations have is that they approach social media halfway, Dempski adds. “They don't fully think through their strategy and security issues."

According to PwC’s Loveland, business and IT executives must become more involved with social media initiatives, ask more detailed questions and more fully understand the impact the technology is having on the enterprise. As social media takes hold, data and posts increasingly travel across multiple servers and systems. Accordingly, the risk grows.

"It is crucial to know what data is sensitive and have ways to fully track who is posting and what they are posting," he says. This might include a regular review of network and firewall logs, endpoint security, and strong database security and encryption to avoid inadvertent or intentional data breaches.

In the end, one thing is clear: Social media is an increasingly valuable tool for the enterprise. Black & Veatch's Winterlind says that it has already transformed the design, engineering and construction firm, and he expects even bigger changes in the months and years ahead.

"We are connecting people and putting data to use in ways that make us more competitive and efficient," Winterlind says. "Social media allows us to deliver the right information to the right person at the right time."