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.

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.

Key success factors

Each of these use cases can be implemented in different ways. Social media tools can be anything from shared documents to Wiki tools and newsgroups. Some organisations go so far as to set up internal communities resembling Facebook, with users sharing pictures and comments on company issues.

Nick Gall, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, believes that social media-type communities are already in general use.

“Perhaps the most obvious examples of the immense productivity potential of community collaboration are the thousands of successful open source software projects hosted on sites such as SourceForge and GitHub. Yet rarely do you hear open source communities even mentioned in the same breath as social media crowds. Enterprises that directly engage in such projects (especially Linux and Eclipse) are already enjoying the benefits of such community productivity.”

Regardless of which tools are used, no social community can exist without a critical mass of initiators, augmenters and readers. The IT department of a French manufacturing company with subsidiaries in the UK, Germany and the US tried to set up internal discussion groups to share best practices, and failed at the attempt because the community was too diluted. The user base was just over a hundred people, and they set up forums with several subject categories, which proved to be a mistake. As a rule of thumb, one hundred people is about enough to keep discussions going on one subject matter; as soon as you start defining sub-topics, the community tends to fizzle out.

“Just as the most important factor in real estate is location, location, location, so the most important factor in social media success is purpose, purpose, purpose,” says Gartner’s Gall.

“The biggest and most frequent mistake businesses make is to assume that if they merely provide the platform, potential social media members will magically create their own sense of purpose. This fundamental mistake is the primary cause of the 90 per cent failure rate for enterprise social media initiatives.

“All successful social collaboration (or, as Gartner often calls it, ‘community collaboration’) starts with a very specific and very compelling purpose – a ‘what’s in it for me?’ that resonates with potential community members on a personal level. Defining such purposes before launching communities is the key to success.”

Transparency is another important success factor. Community members should be able to see all contributions and the source of each contribution. It’s not necessary to show the real names of members in a public forum, but an identifier must be used so that other members can follow contributions from the same person. It’s also important to allow community members to critique and rate all postings. Contributors will rise and fall in status within the community based on the history of their postings.

Remember that transparency breeds trust. Once you have purpose and trust, the community takes the forums in directions you may not have expected, and that’s actually a good thing. Remember that social media is for the benefit of both the enterprise and the community, and if either of these two parties squeezes out the other, the forum is doomed.

Words of wisdom

Depending on which of the three categories of use case best matches what your organisation is trying to achieve, you may benefit from some of the best practices already in use in the market.

When considering use of public social media, so that employees may get outside information...

1. Lay down some guidelines for use of social media, but don’t try to set strict rules. Doing so would put downward pressure on morale, and it would take too much time and effort to enforce. Guidelines might include tips to help prevent employees from falling into bad habits. For example, you might advise employees to set specific times to use social media, or you might remind them to stay focused on topics related to work when browsing social forums.

2. Manage by objective and let workers figure out how they can best meet their objectives within a pre-defined timeframe. If employees get a little distracted by social media on the internet, don’t bother trying to solve that problem. Measure them only on how well they accomplish clearly-defined objectives within deadlines.

When creating a forum inside the company to allow workers to share best practices...

1. Define the purpose for creating the forum and test the idea with potential community members. Refine the purpose as much as you need to get it to a point where a significant number of community members are excited about starting. If you have trouble coming up with a sentence or two describing the need for the forum, that might be an indicator that social media won’t work in this case.

2. Select tools that are easy to access and that are intuitive to use. Community members should be able to gain access on the click of a button. Once they’re on, the learning curve for using the tools should be minimal to non-existent. It should be obvious.

3. Encourage the community to participate as initiators, augmenters, and readers. Most members will just be readers, some will also be augmenters, and a few will also be initiators. Any forum needs all three to survive, so make sure you cater to the needs of all three roles.

When creating a forum outside the company...

1. Just as you spend time defining a purpose that appeals to a significant number of community members for internal social media, do the same for forums you intend to set up for an outside community. Without a clearly defined purpose, your chances of success are slim.

2. Kick off some discussions and encourage the public to contribute, but make sure the forums don’t depend too much on your company starting every discussion. If all activity depends on you, that’s a clear sign the community hasn’t taken off. Consider redefining its purpose or dropping it all together.

3. Don’t try to hide information from community members. Let members see who submits what, and if you moderate, make it clear what your rules are for submissions and the kinds of content you’ll reject. Avoid rejecting submissions on the basis that they express an opposing opinion – it’s best to filter content only when it’s offensive or illegal or the users may turn against the moderators and their forum.

Workers have always congregated during coffee breaks, at lunch, and after work. Many have also chatted between cubicles, sometimes distracting others. Such interaction has always benefited the organisation by building a sense of community and by stimulating creativity. Social media increases the potential for distraction, but it also increases even more the potential for sharing useful information with a much larger and more diverse group. Forward-thinking enterprises know this and are finding ways of using social media for competitive advantage.

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