Social media is here to stay. IDC found social media is used for business purposes at least once a week by more than half of US workers, who often set the trends for their counterparts in the UK and Europe, whilst Gartner predicted by 2014, social networking services will replace email as the primary communications channel for 20 per cent of business users.

The idea seems to be welcomed by Marketing and HR departments, although many CIOs and CTOs are still unsure about social media for enterprises. In spite of the challenges it creates for IT professionals, social media delivers opportunities to everyone and every department within an organisation.

Benefits of social media outweigh the negatives

To many IT professionals, social media looks purpose-built for nightmares as it opens the gate to many privacy and security issues. Also, unpredictable traffic levels of a site that goes viral might add burden to systems and network bandwidth. And if used internally, monitoring for time-wasters and inappropriate content, as well as supporting new communications paths such as Twitter, might fall onto the shoulders of IT departments.

Despite the concerns, social media comes with plenty of benefits. One example, it provides an ideal platform for employees, including the CIO, to discuss challenges and solutions with their peers. A virtual community of like-minded IT professionals serves as an extended support for ad-hoc problems, especially when IT departments are often struggling with limited resources.

The CIO's Role in Social Media Policy Development

As gatekeepers of information technology within an organisation, CIOs need to understand the consumer-driven nature of social media. Many employees are using social media (for business/personal use, or both), and if they are not allowed to do so on their work computer, they probably find a way to do it on their iPads, smartphones or other mobile devices. IT departments need to look into best practices of social media, and grow with the rapidly changing world of social technology.

Social intranet is a great problem solver

An internal-only social network is a good starting point, especially for those who are unsure of using social media to deliver business objectives. For example, a leading media company has recently embarked on its social media journey by launching its first social intranet, aiming to be the one place for staff to share information, ideas and insights.

The company has more than 1,500 employees across a dozen of high-profile media brands and 60 locations in the UK. It would be a challenge to provide a traditional single-platform Intranet across all of these brands, departments and locations. The idea of a centralised platform would traditionally require a large investment in IT equipment, and the implementation could easily take 12 months.

However, the social intranet was set up and ready to pilot within six weeks using a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) social intranet solution, which delivers a strong case for RoI with minimal investment and workload from IT departments. The company's staff are currently sharing information (documents, images and video) on the new platform, as a way to improve internal communications and efficiency through knowledge sharing.

The social intranet helps reduce email traffic significantly as informal discussions now move to the social platform, where information is conveniently captured and stored. Even better, the information becomes available as a searchable and browsable knowledge repository the entire business can benefit from.

Capture valuable information from external audiences

Being able to dip their toes in the water with a closed environment allows IT teams to measure benefits and understand risks with reduced security and privacy worries. Once they are more comfortable with the concepts, they can then mirror the internal social networks to also incorporate valuable information from external audiences.

For example, New Musical Express (better known as NME) launched NME Breakthrough (its own social website) in May, enabling bands to connect with fans. The music magazine's creative approach to interaction with readers creates a platform to collate market intelligence, and through the application's bespoke ranking functionality allowing fans to rate their favourite artists and tracks, NME can gain insights about the bands from their consumers.

Book publisher Random House also launched its Vintage Reading Group this year allowing anyone to create an online reading group, review books or leave feedback. Again, social media becomes a gold mine of valuable market intelligence, at the same time providing a great service to its readers.

Thus, creating and promoting a company's own centralised, external social media site makes it more efficient for the CIO to collect, manage and disseminate this new information flow, without relying heavily on third-party social networks.

From delivering platforms to solutions

The rise of social media within enterprises might have caught some businesses off-guard. However, the benefits outweigh the risks, and CIOs need to work with their teams on developing new skills around delivering social media solutions.

Gartner forecasted that IT organisations will struggle with shifting from providing a platform to delivering a solution through to 2013. As the analyst company suggested, a calculated approach to social media solution delivery requires great IT competency. CIOs will thrive in the new age of social media collaboration, only if they understand the importance of delivering social solutions that bring essential business values.

About the author:

John Eikenberry is Chief Information Officer at social publishing and engagement company, Webjam