Since Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook a decade ago it has attracted a billion users worldwide. Twitter now reports 200 million users who send 400 million tweets every day. Compounded by record IPO valuations well into the $billions, there is little doubt that the social media way of life is here for the duration.
But while it may seem like social media is still relatively new, it has moved through a number of stages in its 10 year evolution so far. Only a few years ago when its popularity amongst consumers was soaring, its role in a business environment was at best confused, and at worst extremely negative.
Reports of Facebook being banned as it was viewed as a distraction, and instances of employees being dismissed because Facebook had revealed to managers that employee absences were not genuine, were not uncommon. In my experience the mere mention of social networking in a business environment has resulted in negativity bordering on rage as managers fear a derogatory impact on the productivity of their workforce.
Are We Nearly There Yet?
In the years that followed, the business software industry merely fanned the flames of these perceptions, adding social networking applications alongside systems with no real agenda or purpose. Mere ‘chatter’ was perpetuated but there was zero business value.
The value of social networking, or social media as it was becoming known as, in a business environment started to be seen as forward thinking, and predominantly consumer-facing, businesses, embraced its role as a marketing tool – incorporating blogging, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube into marketing programmes. Much of this was focused on capitalising on the huge audiences these platforms attracted and campaigns were often on exploiting them as additional outlets to reach audiences.
In the wake of this shift, the role of social media in business suddenly resonated as valid – but its role had been monopolised almost entirely by the Chief Marketing Officer. Other functions within a business remained largely immune to the charms of social media, with negative connotations of Facebook as a workplace distraction prevailing, and many managers unable to make the mental shift from consumer products asking you to ‘like’ them on their Facebook page, to the role of social media in running a production plant. That is, until very recently.
Revelations For A Revolution
The disastrous early examples of ‘social chatter’ within the business environment highlighted that for social media to be valuable in this environment, it has to be used collaboratively (Social Media 2.0). Instead of chatter persisting in parallel with the task in hand, it must be an integral part of that task, or the business application in use.
And while marketing programmes had used social media successfully, the majority of campaigns were focused on platforms as channels and few exploited the capabilities of social media to support multi-way conversations. In light of these lessons and in the hands of other departments, it soon became apparent that social media could be used to engage and empower employees to make more informed decisions, which in turn can address problems, reduce procurement costs, boost productivity, facilitate better customer relationships and drive profitability.
Applied to the business software which underpins these functions, social media represents a whole new way of promoting collaboration amongst disparate groups. Instead of mere chatter, it uses messages and alerts which are embedded in the business applications themselves to influence business processes and deliver value to users. It harnesses relevant, live information to capture and inform the real decision making process – a process which is almost impossible to create fully from unstructured communications around a boardroom table, around a water cooler, on a telephone call or even over e-mail.
It works in the same way as Facebook and Twitter through selecting feeds from say, an ERP system that the user defines. But as well as following individuals, users can follow pieces of data which are pertinent to their business function, and receive a constant feed of everything which is relevant to it.
For example, on the back of an urgent order, a production manager might follow details on current production schedules, stock levels, and warehouse capacity, as well as the people responsible for those areas, in order to ensure that he has a comprehensive, meaningful perspective on exactly how the order can be met, and in what timescales. With the ‘Internet of Things’ a production manager can even follow the ongoing performance of a machine on the production line.
And of course the other crucial benefit of applying social media to business software is that generation Y – the new employees who find it incredibly difficult to get their head around working with a form-based clunky system having spent their university years immersed in the likes of Google, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – can embrace and enjoy using it instantly. This inevitably means less training and more time spent on the task in hand.
A Meaningful Makeover
The truth is that business software was well overdue a makeover. Through incorporating social media thinking to this makeover to ensure that any one user is only a click away from another user’s world, business software has undergone an unprecedented transformation – to social business.
As data continues to explode and decisions have to be made faster and more intelligently, social media has a pivotal role to play in the enterprise – not just for marketing but in the systems which underpin crucial back office functions. Through driving user engagement, empowerment to make better, more informed decisions, and boost productivity, the success of social business in the workplace may only be at the very beginning of its journey.