One possible answer:   The Enterprise.

No, no. Not the Star Trek kind of Enterprise (although that would be pretty cool).   I mean using social media technologies internally, within the large company kind of enterprise.

I’m often asked what I think the next big thing in social media might be.  I’m excited about a lot of different possibilities — true integrations with traditional advertising, big data, real-time interactivity with TV and movies, augmented reality, the promise of location-based apps, the Internet of Things — but “enterprise social media” is the idea that I think could be the biggest near-term game-changer for many large companies.

Let’s step back a minute and think about some of the benefits an individual realizes from social networking:

  • Linking people who might not otherwise be linked
  • Information sharing and education
  • Crowd-sourced innovation and problem-resolution
  • Collaboration
  • Relationship-building through trust and community
  • Exposure to diverse ideas

Now what if we applied social software to those people working within a company?  If employees in a far-flung global company could harvest these benefits internally, couldn’t this create a significant competitive advantage?

The enticing aspect of this idea is that the technology is certainly already there to achieve this. And, of course there are people in every company who would share the vision too.

So why aren’t we seeing more success stories in this area?  The problem is undoubtedly rooted in an issue I wrote about recently — companies are usually not moved to action by vague promises of improved collaboration. They want ROI, but sometimes the benefits of the social web are intangible, and very difficult to plot on a spreadsheet.

While there are isolated examples of success in applying social technologies across an enterprise, most companies still do not let employees access the social web from work, let alone implement internal social networking platforms.

A recent article by John Hagel III and John Seely Brown in the Harvard Business Review did a terrific job of capturing the potential of this opportunity as they explained how the social web can drive real internal company value.

1) ACCESS

“Access,” the authors note, involves the ability to find, learn about, and connect with the right people, information, and resources to address unanticipated needs.

In today’s global companies, the information needed to create a breakthrough idea, or even just do your job more effectively, may reside in people scattered across departments and geographies.  No organizational chart is going to help you find the knowledge you need.

Social software allows the user to reach out to a large number of relevant participants and bring them into a virtual discussion on a specific problem or challenge, so tacit knowledge is shared and new knowledge is created. But social software also captures, and makes these informal conversations searchable. IBM’s internal Twitter experiment is a well-documented example of the potential of this kind of application.

2) ATTRACT

The biggest benefit I’ve personally received from social networking is attracting a group of people (like you!) who have helped me create new business benefits — concepts and opportunities I had not even considered before.

The article notes that this “serendipity,” or the discovery of important and needed resources without even knowing what to look for, is exactly what occurred for the Enterprise Social Media Experiment team at SAP.  What began as a discussion between a small group of participants grew into a synergistic global collaborative development effort between developers from different parts of the world.

3) ACHIEVE

“Achieve” is about driving more rapid learning and sustained performance improvement through meaningful relationships as they develop through the internal social network. Companies won’t be able to achieve sustained and extreme performance just by connecting workers weakly to resources and information.  The real value comes when the one-off interactions develop into relationships and those relationships facilitate sustained collaboration. Individuals and companies achieve their potential when they can tap into and create tacit knowledge through long-term collaborative relationships.

And just to add fuel to my argument about finding new ways to calculate the value of social media qualitatively, the authors also conclude that “Calculating a financial ROI requires too many assumptions, and it distracts from a more explicit focus on the key operating metrics that drive line managers. Once you have embarked on a social software implementation, measuring the improvement in specific operating metrics and looking for opportunities to tell and re-tell the stories of workers who became more productive through the use of these tools can make the connection to social software tangible for others in your organization.” So there. : )

What’s the next big thing in social media?  So many exciting possibilities!  Are you seeing any internal social applications in your company?  What innovations capture YOUR imagination?

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