A business' ultimate success in the age of the customer is its ability to respond to the needs of its partners and customers. Employees expect to be respected colleagues, whose opinions are acknowledged. Clients want the business to be responsive to their need for meaningful innovations in products and services that address their needs.

While the speed at which ideas traverse public social networks is phenomenal, surprisingly few organisations have managed to fully exploit the power of open knowledge sharing inside and outside their company walls. Many businesses have set up social technologies, but few have truly made the technical, cultural, and process changes necessary to reap the full opportunities and benefits of these tools or the vast amounts of data they capture.

This puts business leaders at risk of being overcome by the tidal wave of rapid change and innovation that knowledge-empowered customers, partners, and competitors are spearheading. To take full advantage of social business technologies, Forrester believes CIOs must prioritise them as part of a business technology (BT) agenda.

CIO offices must design for open collaborative organisations where information flows freely and information advantages are built through clever use of internal and external social data. Forrester calls this the "social business" and defines it as:

An organisation that removes barriers between individuals and information while making it easy for people to find and engage with those who can help them solve customer and business problems.

Social businesses help people accomplish tasks. CIOs must not focus solely on technologies that promise openness. They need to consider what capabilities employees need to do their jobs. At a high level, a well-designed social business allows employees to, for example, work more productively, advocate for the organisation, and create positive customer outcomes.

So why have organisations stumbled in their efforts to foster open sharing and collaboration? It starts with vision. Too often, social technologies are viewed simply as tools that can connect employees. But social software plays a much bigger role as part of what Forrester and Geoffrey Moore call systems of engagement — context-rich apps and smart products to help a business' employees, partners, and customers decide and act immediately in their moments of need.

Three principles to guide your social business vision

In our work with Forrester clients, we find that three principles guide the best social business visioning exercises among CIOs and their teams:

1. Design for the extended enterprise.
In order to help employees deliver high-quality customer experiences, businesses must give them the freedom to access and use information, interact with others, and move around as necessary. We also find that knowledge workers must connect with suppliers, partners, and customers to innovate and sell products. Survey results show that almost 90% of information workers work with these external groups in addition to other employees at their company.

The rise of online services like Box and Hightail — tools that allow employees to share content with select people and groups outside of the enterprise — now fill the void that technology management departments leave when they don't offer accessible file sharing services. These cloud-based services provide the design point that CIOs and their staffs should support: access to needed content and data on any device from anywhere at any time.

2. Embrace adaptive trust and licensing models.
At the very foundation, open knowledge sharing depends on a system of trust and accessibility. But hierarchical identity management systems — built on technologies like Active Directory — often create barriers to access. Going forward, CIOs need to press for authentication models that expand access both internally and externally and link information between systems. We see models for this with open authorisation standards like OAuth and OpenID.

High-priced per-user software licensing models are yet another barrier to access. Some vendors, like Salesforce, have recognised this issue and instituted licensing structures to allow employees who aren't seat holders to access information within their systems. The office of the CIO must be prepared to provide the broader access while not compromising data security or licensing agreements.

3. Link social technology to business processes.
Social tools won't help knowledge workers do their jobs if the technology is disconnected from how employees work. As Sameer Patel, global vice president and general manager of enterprise social software at SAP, observes, social apps can help improve processes by giving employees additional information and expertise to forecast more accurately, make decisions faster, and improve other critical business functions.

Forrester sees packaged applications vendors like Oracle rolling out activity stream technologies to quickly alert workers to events and help bring in the appropriate people to address issues. These integrations only work, though, if the technology management department works with process owners in the business to integrate these tools into employee workflows.

Help people overcome social business challenges

The best social business vision statements focus on helping people overcome challenges. Whether strategies are directed at narrow operational improvements, broad-based workforce productivity gains, or customers themselves, identifying the who of social business will help scope programs effectively. Vision is also about identifying business objectives that are both realistic and measurable over time.

Art Schoeller is a vice president and principal analyst, and TJ Keitt is a senior analyst, at Forrester