Social media remains a forum for debate

Some IT departments view social media as a waste of time. The prevailing opinion in these organisations is that unless you restrict access, employees are too easily tempted to set aside work and chat with friends on the internet instead. But others see social media as a set of tools that enhance productivity. They’re of the mind that while people may sometimes get distracted, the benefits of participating in a community outweigh the drawbacks.

These opposing views are not limited to social media on the public internet. Opinion is frequently just as polarised with respect to in-house forums and instant messaging. Some companies opt to minimise distraction in all its guises, while others take the more open view that sharing information yields positive results.

Social media comes in different forms, but it all narrows down to any set of tools that enable people to communicate within groups, where groups are defined by common interests. Consider the different use cases in an enterprise. Companies potentially benefit from the use of social media in the following ways:

1. Any employee might use public social media to find information, which can directly support the mission of the organisation. Through public internet forums, software developers get tips on coding, scientists frequently share research findings and test ideas with one another, and communications professionals can test public opinion of their brand by looking at what’s being said on Facebook and other public sites.

Few people would argue that restricting access is a good idea in cases like the ones just described. However, some would say that roles need to be identified beforehand, so that only those who have clear needs for outside tips are given privileges. For some job functions the distinction is clear; for others it’s murky. Rather than spend the time classifying users and enforcing a restrictive policy, it’s perhaps more productive to set individual objectives and let workers manage their time as they see fit to reach those objectives. Such an approach works best when goals are clear and managers hold workers responsible for reaching their goals.

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2. The IT department might set up internal forums for employees to share learnings and best practices. Through in-house social media, government organisations communicate intelligence information, sales people collaborate internally to help one another overcome objections from potential customers, and technical support workers tell one another how to fix problems.

Internal collaboration works best when a narrowly-defined need is shared by at least a few dozen users, with many prepared to initiate discussions and contribute to existing discussions on a regular basis. Tools must be easy to access and intuitive to use.

3. The marketing department might use public social media to build brand awareness and loyalty. Some companies place advertisements on different social networks, while others set up public discussions to get feedback on their products and services. By building a community, not only does the company get useful information on its market, it also enhances customer allegiance.

News organisations build a devoted following by encouraging readers to comment on articles. At the same time, they enhance the information value by sharing the different perspectives provided by readers. Radio stations use social media to build loyalty by encouraging listeners to submit music requests on Facebook. Other companies, such as Starbucks, have benefited by seeking out (and getting) opinions from a large customer base through social media. At the same time, users of such forums tend to be more loyal towards the company because they feel that they’ve been listened to, and they gain a sense of ownership through their contributions.