Social Business in 2013

For the last couple of years I have done a blog post about trends in social business following IBM’s major customer conference on the topic (previously Lotusphere, this year called Connect 2013). For a change, I decided this year to reflect on trends last year and this while on the flight out to Orlando. Then I can blog about whether the emerging trends for 2013 at the conference align with my thoughts, things that I had missed and revelations that I can glean from the many smart people who will be at the event.

Social business certainly emerged as a top of mind topic for many (most?) companies during the year, with CIOs giving it room on their agendas and other parts of the business (like marketing, customer service, HR and internal communications) being forced to pay attention by the people they serve. The sheer volume of interest, internally and externally, meant the topic got the attention of CEOs as they struggled with the need to drive both increased sales and reduced costs in a tough economic climate.

In some ways, it reminded me of the email adoption boom of the early 90’s, when comments like “we’ll never use email” gave way to conversations where CEOs asked their CIOs “Why do all of my peers have an email address on their business card, but I don’t?” The concept of leveraging social media and networking for internal and external conversations is clearly Crossing the Chasm (in Geoffrey Moore’s words), even if it is not yet mainstream.

One might observe that a consensus about what capabilities are needed, and what cultural, behavioural and organisational changes will be the dominant manifestations of social business, is only now starting to appear. At the end of the last century, the use of email was just one of a number of coincident changes that drove new organisational models. It combined with wide area networks, laptops, mobile phones, videoconferencing, mass air transportation and acceptance of English as a common language for business to turn work into something you did from anywhere, not somewhere you went, a shift to services industries as the engine of growth and to globalisation as the dominant organisational trend in business.

Similarly, today social media is combining with mobile devices, cloud computing, analytics on big data and (in all probability) congruent non-IT tends like the emergence of major new economies and mega-cities, low cost airlines and high speed trains, rural broadband and true “always on” networks (I am writing this on a plane over the Atlantic, with mobile phone calls and data available as needed). I wonder what cultural shifts and organisational transformations these changes will drive?

When I look around, I already see the start of a shift from homogeneous, heavily advertised global brands towards a consumer demand for local, artisan products. This trend has reached a level where large companies must respond: I read this morning that Molson Coors, a global brewing conglomerate if there ever was one, has set up an “Emerging Markets and Craft Beer” unit to manage the growing number of small, local breweries it is acquiring around the world – not to reuse its brand names for standardised products as it has in the past, but to allow it to bring local products to other, targeted markets. Then I see Starbucks deciding to “voluntarily” pay more local UK tax (instead of shifting profits to more tax efficient countries) in the face of a local consumer revolt, driven by a belief that it was not committed to the country where it was operating.

Today, organisations need to engage with their consumers in a personalised way (including on their choice of device) to create a loyal relationship, instead of commoditising their products and allowing an anonymous price comparison site to mediate between them and their customers. For example, sitting here on my IP enabled flight, my gas suppliers mobile app pinged to remind me it is time to submit a meter reading to ensure that my bext bill is accurate.

Smart marketing teams are starting to understand that differentiated customer experiences, at all points on the price curve, are essential to maintaining profit margins as services are becoming just as much of a commodity as gadgets already have (unless there is an Apple to differentiate them).

So, what does this mean for the social business industry? Several themes emerged in 2013.

For high value relationships with clients, direct engagement with your staff is increasingly a key differentiator – but using the customer’s choice of channel (not just face to face, email and phone).

For volume business, customer service excellence is key; and social media (like Twitter and Facebook) is a more cost effective way of delivering it than telephone call centres, and a more customer friendly (personalised) way than traditional web sites. But these conversations will span multiple channels over time, and require the “Tweet Centre” staff to have access to a much richer set of knowledge and experts than a traditional Call Centre (as the focus shifts from “time to resolution” to “best customer outcome”).

Organisations that just put in a social collaboration platform and leave the users to figure it what to do with it, face problems getting the level of adoption they expect or see elsewhere (sure, it’s easy to get a few enthusiasts on board, but most employees will continue to do their job the way they always have until they are convinced to do something else).

Even more importantly, just putting the platform in doesn’t automatically deliver either of the benefits summarised above – only adoption of the platform for the right purposes does that.

In many organisations, successful use of social tools is happening today when small groups of employees with a common pain point figure out how to address them by finding a suitable social platform and focussing on their problem, not the tool. While the choice of a poor tool will prevent success, you will not hear about those projects – just the ones that succeed – and there the selected tool only needs to be “good enough” for the specific problem in hand.

This trend results in real innovation and business success – but also in a proliferation of tools, which themselves produce knowledge silos and (in many cases) are not interchangeable (as they were selected to solve a specific problem). This is not a bad thing in itself – the projects are delivering business value. However when the tools are chosen locally without regard for security, compliance or even regulatory needs, this approach, while good for getting early successes and starting the social business ball rolling, is not a viable long term, scalable strategy because of the cost of supporting a different social tool for every project (just as organisations in the mid 90s realised that replacing their multiple, departmental email solutions with an enterprise infrastructure was a more cost effective solution than linking them all together).

A particular problem is emerging in companies that respond to effective corporate controls by outsourcing their whole social project – e.g. by using an external agency to manage their social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, etc. This may seem logical in an environment where marketing does not have the internal expertise and IT amplifies their problems be preventing staff from getting to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the other critical components of marketing’s modern armoury, from their desks.

But it causes real issues: instead of engaging with their market and customers, the organisation is putting an intermediary in the way which, without care, will filter the messages to what their customer wants to hear; and the intermediary cannot get the access to internal knowledge and expertise they need to service the inbound engagement that the customers expect (or rovide a view of what the market thinks to everyone who needs to hear it).

This is just one manifestation of a broader problem. Many organisations are in danger of finding themselves in a situation where marketing creates a perception (or even an implicit brand promise) in their customers mind that the organisation is ready to engage in a two way relationship or conversation via social means – an expecation that the operational side of the organisation is simply not prepared to live up to. The result is sure to be customer dissatisfaction, social media storms and negative publicity.

Organisations can only avoid this by becoming social businesses internally, as well as externally. Effective expertise location, knowledge sharing, social analytics and cross organisational community building, as well as close collaboration with channel and supplier partners, is key to delivering the sort of external customer experience which customers, and prospective customers, now expect.

So if traditional social adoption approaches have resulted in only patchy usage, how can organisations change users behaviour so they exhibit the traits that characterise a social business: engaged (between staff, with partners, with your customers and with the market), transparent (so employees are empowered with access to the expertise and knowledge they need to deliver an exceptional customer experience) and nimble (rapidly responding to customer issues, reacting to market shifts and innovating to outperform competitions)?

The answer is to approach the problem from two sides:

1. Focus on adoption from the perspective of business processes not individual productivity, team collaboration or organisational effectiveness. Look at the end to end process needed to address a known business pain, improve an existing process or start a new initiative. Figure out how to build in social ways of working to improve the process. Don’t let knowledge sharing, expertise location and community building become something users do “as well as their job,” make it they way the processes work, and so the way emloyees do their job. Then there is no incremental cost or maintenance effort – it is built into the process.

2. Focus strategically on introducing a generic social business platform that lets the team owning a business process create their solution with minimal effort & cost, and maximum effectiveness. You can start with just the capabilities and capacity needed to address some initial target processes, but must select and architect a platform that has the capabilities and scalability needed to address future needs as they arise. Don’t force the business to adapt their processes to one inadequate tool, provide them with a rich toolset that let’s them build the processes that are right for the business.

I am already having conversations with customers about how they can consolidate the social platforms that different parts of the business have started using – especially ones that are unauthorised and do not conform to corporate policies. But please, please, please: don’t let this become just a migration project to a social tool that provides just enough capability for the existing projects – creating, effectively, a cost only project that delivers no new business value. The objective should be first and foremost to deliver a flexible platform that can integrate into all your core systems and provide capabilities which business users can apply in future to solving new business problems.

Depending on cost and risk you can move existing social projects onto your core platform (especially those using platforms that do not comply with corporate policies – when those policies are still valid), but the real value is that the ability to support existing projects will give you confidence that the platform provides the capabilities needed for other purposes – as required for future projects. If there is a compliance exposure or another reason to migration, then by all means focus on that, but otherwise the owners of the business process can prioritise the migration once they see the success the new platform is bringing in order to reduce the inherent costs of running an alternative platform. It is more important to do new things that bring new value to the business.

Ensuring that your chosen platform has a sufficiently rich set of capabilities, an ability to integrate with current and future infrastructure, and a long term future itself, are the critical things, even if that slows down its acquisition and deployment (which can be mitigated by adopting tactical solutions for tactical requirements in the meantime).

So, my initial set of trends for 2013 are:

1. Focus on social enabling business processes.

2. Adoption is key (there is no business value without adoption) but it will happen because the business process requires adoption, not because the social tools are irresistible.

3. Many companies will use a diverse set of tools (sanctioned and unsanctioned) for initial projects, because it’s hard to build a business case for a strategic enterprise platform in order to solve a tactical business problem.

4. This will result in a need for consolidation onto an enterprise social platform in the future to reduce the costs of supporting many tools and, more importantly, to allow the business to rapidly deploy new socially enabled business processes at a lower cost.

Interestingly, none of those trends are about technology innovation – they are all about how the business adopts social tools (which, I guess, is the meta-trend here). But I would like to end with a technology viewpoint on this.

During the 90s we went from >20 different email tools, primarily built for departmental use, often from niche players, and each focussing on differentiating features, to two dominant generic email platforms, which were differentiated by their enterprise-wide scalability, their standards support and the functionality to addressed the core user needs.

I don’t think that sort of social platform consolidation will be obvious in the 2013 timescale, but it definitely will be the key trend of the next 5 years, and standards support & integration capabilities will be what differentiates the winning solutions.