By Stuart J. McRae, Executive Collaboration & Social Business Evangelist, IBM Collaboration Solutions

The move of the social network into the business space is as inexorable as it is revolutionary. But what are the underlying disruptive trends that are driving the evolution of the Social Business, and what are the issues for a traditional enterprise looking to embrace this model of working? Stuart J. McRae, Executive Collaboration & Social Business Evangelist, IBM Collaboration Solutions identifies the four main trends:

1. Social Collaboration — As we have already noted, peoples’ experience of social networking technologies outside of work is often completely at odds with their company’s old world IT environment. For example, when working with a team whose members are spread across numerous sites, they might decide that the traditional email chain or series of conference calls isn’t a good way to collaborate — rather, it might make more sense to use Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook to discuss product development or a customer issue. They might even ‘brand’ this forum with the company’s name. The problem is that this is out on the public web and entirely insecure. In the new world of the Social Business, it’s very difficult to control this type of activity because it’s so easy to do — the only solution is to provide employees with equivalent social tools inside the corporate firewall to dissuade them from straying. In a Social Business, the line of business is king in terms of adopting new collaborative technologies — the IT organization has to recognize this and provide comparable solutions of its own or risk being sidelined by the users it is meant to be serving.

2. Mobile Devices — In tandem with the impact of online social networking tools, the rise of the smartphone has had a profound effect on the way people interact and communicate. In the same way that we are now used to talking, messaging and surfing the web wherever and whenever we like, so users increasingly expect to be able to work and collaborate with their colleagues on the go. Devices such as the iPhone have put the internet in the palm of our hands, with content and social networks being always available. This sense of real time immediacy is changing the traditional work/life balance, with the delineation between business and private time blurring. Just as users expect to respond to personal messages in work time, so they are requesting the ability to access more and more of the corporate back office whenever they need to work. As such, when implementing social platforms in the enterprise, it is vital that they can also be securely accessed via mobile devices, 24/7. This will become even more important as we move into a future where non-PC devices will increasingly be the primary interface for collaboration.

3. The Cloud — Another trend that is particularly pertinent to the enterprise is the growth in Cloud-based applications - ready to use, out of the box services available all over the internet. Capable of being accessed by any device with a web browser, the Cloud offers a simple and cost-effective way for the Social Business to provide collaborative tools for its employees. Cloud-based deployments are gathering momentum, quickly moving from the left-field into the mainstream. A survey in 2010 from the London School of Economics found that 65% of business executives believe that the Cloud will drive down the cost of running applications, while 55% believe that the Cloud enables them to better transform their business and make processes leaner, faster and more agile. The most important consideration for IT is making sure that applications are being made accessible over Cloud infrastructure with the requisite levels of security — while the Social Business might use certain collaborative tools in a public Cloud, financial data and customer-sensitive information is better discussed within a private Cloud with strict access controls.

4. Customer Engagement — Any large scale re-engineering of a company’s IT infrastructure, particularly in the service of creating a Social Business, should be customer-focused and designed to get the most out of the closer relationships it engenders by delivering an exceptional web experience to its customers. To become truly customer-centric, an organization needs to listen to them when they proactively volunteer information — because customer feedback obtained via social media is often very different from information gained through surveys and other, more traditional, market intelligence tools. Instead of simply pushing messages and offers out to the market, the Social Business engages customers through open dialogue integrated with rich media capabilities that cater to customers’ preferences, buying patterns and personal networks. An effective Social Business can also implement a flexible model of customer self-service capabilities, such as forums and communities, to increase responsiveness, help with product development and decrease customer service costs.

These disruptive trends are not only occurring at the same time, but build on each other. For example, mobile devices provide an access point that significantly enriches social collaboration. Cloud services are an essential pre-requisite to making mobile devices really useful in the enterprise, as well as simplifying application access. Customer engagement often happens over social networking solutions deployed in the Cloud. This perfect storm of complementary developments is going to dramatically change the structure of IT in the future.