We all know that success in business these days is ever more dependent on exploiting the power of social media technologies. But how do you actually do it?
There are plenty of books on social media out there already. So why would anyone want to write, or even read, yet another? This is the question that has led Anthony Bradley – one half of the authorship duo responsible for 'The Social Organization' – to a number of conclusions based on his work as group vice-president at Gartner Research.
There was, according to Bradley, still a "significant hole" in the information available, and the nature of that knowledge gap was nothing short of addressing the issue of how to apply the technology. In other words: we have the political will, the resources and the technology. All that's required is an understanding of what you need to do to make social media work as an engineering management tool.
"How do you identify, catalyse, empower, and derive value from a community?" ponders Bradley. And how do you, as a leader and manager, help your company competent in using social media to foster productive collaboration? Bradley thinks that to answer these questions you need to do more than simply hook up to Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter and hope.
'The Social Organization' is dedicated to the bigger question of how managers can achieve broad and sustainable success using social media. "Most leaders get caught up in the buzz," says Bradley. There is a common misconception that all you really need is a Facebook page and a Twitter account to become social. His research has shown a prevalence of poor practice. "We call it 'provide and pray'. This involves simply providing access to a social media technology and praying something good comes of it. This fails 90 per cent of the time."
So does that mean the time-honoured marketing ploy of 'ready, fire, aim!' is as likely to be ineffectual in social media marketing as it is anywhere else? "The most prominent success pattern we discovered is an up-front focus on purpose. Purpose is the cause around which a community will rally. It's what motivates them to contribute and is the source of business value."
Initiatives lacking in purpose are hardly initiatives in any sense of the word, and will, as Bradley bluntly puts it, simply fail. On the other hand, those with a highly compelling and meaningful purpose will find a way to succeed. "This is your challenge as a leader. Find the right purposes; organisations should examine their most important business goals, the business activities that provide competitive advantage, or their most pressing collaboration."'
What is value?
The problem with social media as a business weapon is that the outcome is difficult to measure in commercial terms, as in itself it has no value. Bradley goes back to one of the earliest forms of technology. "How do you measure the value of a hammer?"
What this really means today is that to gain value, you must apply social media to a well-defined business purpose. "The business value of social media is purpose-specific."
Targeted applications of social software that gain purposeful engagement can have tremendous bottom-line value. One company that Bradley and McDonald talked to moved from call-centre centric to community centric customer support. They managed to engage a community of their customers who helped each other use and gain more value from their products. The company drove down customer support costs by a factor of ten, from $8.00 per issue to $0.80. A further benefit was that "90'per cent of issues raised in the collaborative community were addressed by the community in less than 24 hours."
Bradley also found that one organisation used social media to deliver a 25 per cent improvement in the productivity of their 500-strong engineering team in two months, "simply by giving them the purpose and tools to collaborate faster and smarter." Effectively, the team was delivering the output of 625 people as a result of essentially letting them solve their own problems.
One of the most limiting factors in achieving an effective corporate social media strategy is that "many organisations relegate social collaboration to the marketing department. The vast majority of significant business benefits of social media comes not from marketing communications, but from productive communities."
Bradley stresses that the real business value of social media is that it can be used as an enabler for communities to collaborate, to achieve otherwise impossible results. "Never before have thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people been able to simultaneously create content, share experiences, build relationships and engage in other forms of productive work."
There will be readers of this discussion who instinctively feel that for all its strengths and benefits, social media is simply not able to replace the relationship-creating value of working human-to-human. Bradley agrees, saying that social software can't and won't replace "face-to-face, because they are most appropriate for different types of human interactions".
This is one of the key observations of the book, in that social media provides an alternative method for bonding at a personal level with customers and employees. "This is not the real power of social media. We've had synchronous technologies for years, such as the telephone, instant messaging, and video teleconferencing that proxy face-to-face interactions." The conclusion is that by using social software you will find people you'll want to engage with on a deeper level, but then it is "wise to move to a different medium".
A clear case for not going down the 'provide and pray' route. You can't simply open the box, plug in and wait for results. But there are real advantages to be had from embracing social media, if only you know what you want. The Social Organization is a fascinating investigation into how companies can achieve results by going down the collaborative route. But would you, as a manager, know a good purpose for mass collaboration? "Most managers," concludes Bradley, "know how to make their organisation productive. But how many know how to make a community productive? Not many. But we are seeing steady change." *
'The Social Organization' by Anthony J Bradley and Mark P McDonald is published by Harvard Business Review Press, £24.99