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

Over the past ten years, social networking has revolutionized the way that people communicate and stay in touch with each other. Easy to use online tools such as Facebook have opened up a myriad of possibilities for heightened interaction between friends, families and communities, from the simple sharing of photographs to the rapid organization and mobilization of special interest groups. At its heart, social networking has been a change agent, empowering people and transforming their attitudes towards how to get things done.

As such, it should come as no surprise that these attitudes are starting to permeate the workplace, particularly as the next generation of social networking ‘natives’ enter employment. Having used technology to communicate and collaborate with diverse and widespread networks of people, it only seems logical to employees that this type of technology should also be available to them where they work. Similarly, consumers’ expectations of how they interact with the companies they buy products from have altered radically, with open dialogue via online channels replacing passive acceptance of marketing messages.

What we are seeing is the dawn of the Social Business, where traditional ways of working are being challenged and in many cases superseded by a new model based on collaboration, empowerment and openness.

For some companies, this change from within is coming as a shock, with users of social tools actively sidestepping established hierarchies and IT processes to work in new ways. While the desire to discourage and restrict social networking in the enterprise is understandable, it is ultimately a regressive step, because this is the direction in which the future points. Instead, companies need to adapt their working practices to embrace and assimilate social collaboration to improve their business processes. Otherwise, they risk being left behind by more forward-looking and agile competitors.

What does it mean to be a Social Business? It is a company that embraces and empowers networks of people to create business value, providing them with exceptional work experiences. It has three underlying tenants:

1. Engagement - A Social Business connects people to expertise. It enable individuals — whether customers, partners or employees — to form networks of relationships that generate new sources of innovation, foster creativity, and establish greater reach and exposure to new business opportunities. It establishes a foundational level of trust across these business networks and, thus, a willingness to openly share information. It empowers these networks with the collaborative tools needed for members to engage with each other and creatively solve business challenges.

2. Transparency - A Social Business strives to remove unnecessary barriers between experts inside the company and expertise in the marketplace. It embraces the tools and leadership models that support capturing knowledge and insight from many sources, enabling it to quickly sense changes in customer mood, employee sentiment or process inefficiencies. It utilizes analytics and social connections inside and outside the company to solve business problems and uncover new business opportunities.

3. Nimbleness - A Social Business leverages its social networks to speed up business, gaining real time insight to make quicker and better decisions. It gets information to and from customers and partners in new ways, and faster. Supported by ubiquitous access on mobile devices and working together on open platforms, a Social Business turns time and location from constraints into advantages. Business is free to occur when and where it delivers the greatest value, allowing the organization to adapt quickly to the changing marketplace.

Ultimately, by creating networks of expertise and making them easy to access, a Social Business enables its employees — and customers — to more easily find the information they seek. It helps groups of people bind together into communities of shared interest and coordinate their efforts to deliver better business results faster. It encourages, supports and takes advantage of innovation and idea creation and builds on the wisdom of the crowd.

Already, those companies embracing the Social Business model are seeing real value and quantifiable improvements in the way they work. The McKinsey Global Survey of companies in 2009 found that 69% of respondents reported measurable business benefits from using social networking tools, including better access to knowledge, lower costs of doing business, and higher revenues. IBM’s own CHRO Study from 2010 reflects these findings, with 44% of outperforming companies (based on their EBITDA rating over five years) using social collaboration to enable teams to work more effectively — 57% more than underperforming companies.

How is this value actually manifested within the Social Business? Take, for example, marketing. In a traditional enterprise, marketing is engaged with pushing content to its audiences, and is focused on controlling the brand rather than reacting to the needs of its customers. By deepening customer relationships through interactive online channels, the Social Business can both drive advocacy amongst its customers and increase sales by engaging directly with the people who buy its products. Another example is product development. Whereas R&D has often been conducted by specialist teams in isolated knowledge silos, with ideas only market-tested months into development, the Social Business uses its networks of expertise and closer relationships with its customers to generate ideas and create market-ready products faster and more efficiently.

A challenge faced by virtually all enterprises today is how to build organizations that are more adaptive and agile, more creative and innovative, and more efficient and resilient. It is becoming clear that the traditional hierarchical enterprise, built on a structure of departments and a culture of compartmentalization, will give way to a socially synergistic enterprise built on continually evolving communities and a culture of collaboration, sharing and innovation. Because of this, the evolutionary path to becoming a Social Business is one that enterprises will inevitably follow. The differentiating factors — those which will separate the leaders from the masses — will stem from how effectively an organization embraces both a Social Business culture as well as the technology to deepen customer relationships, drive operational efficiencies and optimize the workforce.

Join us on
Follow @freshbusiness