Social networking potential remains untapped inside businesses

Although companies have been urged to adopt “Web 2.0” and social technologies for years now, the truth is that relatively few have done so internally in any serious way — and use inside the business is where the most value can be gained.

Instead, the corporate focus on social technologies has beenin marketing organizations that use it to monitor what customers aresaying about the company and to try to influence customer views –what’s called reputation management — by addingTwitter, Facebook, and so on to the traditional advertising andmarketing channels. (And individual employees use social networkingtechnology to build business relationships for their own benefit, ofcourse.)

Despite the slow actual adoption for internal business benefit, theallure of social technology remains strongbecause of its potential to be a key value generator in a workplacethat depends on collaboration, communication, and insights. Gartneranalysts Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald say that serious use ofsocial tech in business is thwarted by several reasons: executive fear,a misplaced focus on using social media solely for marketing, and alack of “purposeful reasons” for building communities. That’s too bad,they say, because the potential of social tech used within the businessdwarfs the marketing benefit that so many focus on today.

Some companies have moved past the pilot stage and areenjoying serious benefits from social technologies used inside thebusiness. For example, at IBM, social networking isn’t just forspreading the word to customers. Employees use an internalFacebook-like network to find colleagues with the skills they need tosolve pesky customer problems. Business travel site Egencia uses aninternal social media platform to host Know Your Enemy feeds that givesalespeople the competitive intelligence to win deals. And softwaregiants such as Microsoft and Google use crowdsourcing (large numbers ofrelatively low-paid users recruited over the Web) to test applicationsmore quickly and less expensively than they could in-house.

A recent Forrester survey shows only 28 percent of U.S. workers usesocial networking, and most of them are early adopters who are onlytesting the waters for its internal purposes. For example, Dell isregarded as a leading user of social media. It maintains severalinternal blogs for employees and uses the Chatter add-on to Salesforce.com to shareinformation among its sales staff. But chief blogger Lionel Menchacasays that most of the users are early adopters, and only about 5,000 ofDell’s more than 100,000 employees have taken company-offered courseson social technology.

Gartner’s research shows that, in 2007 and 2008, about 80 percent ofcompanies were using social technology for marketing and 20 percentinternally, but analyst Bradley recently wrote that “the mix has sinceshifted closer to 50/50.” A fall 2011 Frost & Sullivan surveyshowed 56 percent of surveyed organizations using social technology forprofessional purposes; of those, nearly 6 in 10 used it for internalpurposes such as internal communication, training, and (for 4 out of10) to “foster team spirit” or to “increase job satisfaction.”

Collaboration: Social tech’slow-hanging fruit
One enthusiastic user is grocery giant Supervalu, which operates orsupplies 4,200 grocery stores under about a dozen brand names. It nowhas 8,000 users of the social networking platform Yammer, a numberexpected to nearly double this year in a move to increasecollaboration, says CIO Wayne Shurts. One example: Managers of storesoperating under different brands used Yammer to coordinate a campaignoffering college students small refrigerators stuffed with discountcoupons to generate repeat visits.

IBM’s internally developed Connections platform includes capabilitiessuch as text chat, video, blogging, and document sharing, and it’ssearched about 1 million times a week, says Luis Benitez, a socialsoftware product manager at IBM. He himself used it to find an IBMexpert who, unbeknownst to Benitez, was working at the same floor ofthe same building. Connections is also helpful for gathering answers toRFPs in a single place rather than creating a string of unwieldyemails, he says.

Connections also saved $4 million in one year by making it easier for employees to find information, and another $100 million by allowing customers and other outsiders to get information online rather than calling IBM, Benitez says.

Software vendor SAS says its use of theSocialCast platform helps employees quickly find both answers andskilled colleagues. Some 63 percent of its 12,370 worldwide employeeshave begun using SocialCast since it was rolled out in January 2011,helping to “build on a culture of transparency and trust,” as well as”dynamic working relationships” that led to the highest employee andcustomer satisfaction rates in the company’s history, a spokesman says.

Egencia, the business travel arm of consumer travel site Expedia, usesChatter to share competitive information such as pricing among itssales force, says Courtney House, the unit’s senior director of salesoperations. She estimates about 40 percent of its sales force isactively using Chatter, with another 30 percent “lurking” (reading butnot contributing often); the remaining 30 percent is uninvolved.

Email marketing vendor StrongMail used Jive Software’s social mediaplatform to create one collaboration community for customers and asecond internally to help sales reps with such tasks as finding andsharing customized sales material, says Kristin Hersant, vice presidentof corporate marketing.

In an online world, collaboration tends to be through text-orientedvenues. But that method of communication doesn’t always fit the realityof complex tasks, understanding complicated information, and workingtogether based on a shared corporate culture. One approach to makecollaboration more humanly social is through the use of virtualinteraction, such as via avatars. That’s the idea behind ProtonMedia’s3D virtual environment for learning and collaboration.

It isn’t cheap to develop the virtual SaaS environments; pilotstypically cost $30,000 to 50,000, and full production systems typicallycost $200,000 to $300,000. But compare that to contract clinicalresearcher Pharmaceutical Product Development, which usually spends $2million a year sending field staff to central locations for training.The $650,000 it paid for ProtonMedia’s service was still a bargain,says CIO Mike Wilkinson. Even better, he notes, the levels ofengagement and knowledge retention in virtual training were as good asface-to-face sessions — and in some ways better.

Unlike traditional classroom training, the virtual classes allow a student to”monitor data, and have their instructor in another part of the worldor even their line manager in their region, monitor what they’re doing”and provide real-time feedback, Wilkinson says. And although manypeople are “pretty shy” in a real classroom, they’re more likely tospeak up in the virtual environment because “it’s kind of not you doingit, it’s your avatar. It’s a safer environment.”

Crowdsourcing: getting tasks donecheaper, faster and more flexibly
Another area where social technology has proven value is incrowdsourcing, a technology often associated with social media andgathering content for use in blogs, videos, and podcasts. But those arehardly the only areas where crowdsourcing can be applied.

CrowdFlower’s “enterprise crowdsourcing platform,” for example, taps1.5 million online “contributors” for work such as trolling socialmedia sites for information about sales prospects or ensuring eBay offerings are listed are inthe right category. This can save as much as 40 percent compared tousing a traditional outsourcer, the company claims. The contributors,who are recruited from gaming sites and other online venues, are paidas little as 5 cents for simple tasks and as much as $10 for moreinvolved work such as taking a picture of a physical location.

uTest crowdsources testing to “contributors” whom it categorizes basedon their technical skills, geography, and demographic characteristics.Direct marketing and teleservices firm RuffaloCody estimates uTestcosts only 15 percent of what using its own staff for load,functionality, and user acceptance testing would have entailed, saysPaul Ruffalo, the firm’s director of information systems. He also saysthe crowd-based testers did a better job than in-house engineers offinding creative ways to break the software and ensure it will work,allowing the firm to find and deploy fixes more quickly than it couldin the past.

Likewise, mobile video software vendor Viddyfound uTest to be faster and less expensive than using in-house testersor an outsourcer, says David Dean, Viddy’s head of operations. Theservice also made it easier to find testers who can check theapplication on various versions of the iPhone running on differentnetworks, he says.

Crowdsourcing a basic function such as data entry can be 60 to 70 percent less expensive than traditional outsourcing, says outsourcing consultancy Everest Group. It cautions, though, that large customers worry there is less accountability with the crowd than with a traditional staff, and that Web-based contributors do a better job on well-defined tasks than on more complex business processes. Some firms are also nervous, it says, about protecting information shared with anonymous workers over the Web.

Tips for deploying social techsuccessfully
Like any other technology, business social technology must be deployedand managed right to deliver a return.

Several early adopters recommended deploying social tech platforms asadd-ons to existing applications rather than forcing users to installand learn something new. As proof, IBM’s Benitez points out that morethan half the traffic on Connections comes from links to regular officeapplications and users’ email clients.

Some customers are integrating the new social tech platforms withexisting collaboration platforms such as Microsoft SharePoint. In those cases,SharePoint often becomes a repository for reference material, withreal-time conversations migrating to social media tools.

Egencia did a “road show” educating skeptics on the value of Chatter,as well as an internal marketing campaign that offered prizes for userswho found information using Chatter. Users organize informationthemselves as they create it through the use of hash tags and groups,which allow others to find information months or years after it wascreated.

Although it gets less attention than its fancy customer-facing socialnetworking counterpart, business social tech can deliver both dollarsavings and harder-to-measure benefits such as involvement, commitment,and speed. In a tough, uncertain economy, that’s more than enoughreason to try to bring social tech in-house.