Business Brains

Is your company ready to be a social business?

Is your company ready to be a social business?

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There are many insights to be gained from using social business software, but not every company will be able to handle the cultural changes required.

I am the first person to get super excited about the potential of technology to change the way that companies work or handle their business processes. That means I am intrigued about the role that so-called social business software will play in the sharing of institutional knowledge across companies.

Forrester Research predicts a boom in this software, with the market for social enterprise applications increasing by 61 percent through 2016 to reach about $6.4 billion in revenue.

The reality is, though, becoming a social business is a cultural thing, not just a software investment.

Earlier this week, IBM introduced scads of new software that falls into the social business software category. Included in that introduction is the next-generation of IBM Connections, which is billed as an application and analytics tool for helping keep tabs on employee sentiment or customer market trends. The press release declares: "With one simple click, professionals can react to this insight by automatically creating a social network, on the fly, bringing together experts across geographical and market intelligence, and swiftly respond to these insights."

Can you imagine your own organization acting this quickly?

Right.

Social business software platforms support social networks that are business-to-business focused, expert blogs where people share information and updates about products (as an example), wikis where teams can work through an issue or ask for insight, and other applications intended to help your workforce collaborate differently than in the past.

In preparation for a social business case study that I am researching for SmartPlanet, I recently interviewed Moxie Software President and CEO Tom Kelly. Moxie Software is one of the software companies targeting this category along with IBM, Jive Software, Yammer, Socialtext, Telligent and others that offer either pieces of the software business software puzzle or full-fledge applications.

One of Moxie Software's big rallying cries is the ability to offer better customer service. "How do I make sure that the answer is the same regardless of the [communications] channel they are choosing," Kelly said.

Kelly is the first to admit there is plenty of cultural resistance within some large organizations to the idea, and it takes companies with a certain culture to lead the way. So how do you know your company is one of those companies? Here are 5 questions you should ask as a litmus test for whether or not your organization is ready for social business software.

  1. Is it highly distributed? Remote workers, branch offices and business partners help your company extend its mission beyond a specific headquarters site and mentality. The trick is to embrace the advantage of that local presence while giving those people access to the same information and tools as the central hub of your business. If you are a small company with just one office, your focus might be better placed on how your organization can better use existing social platforms -- at least for now.
  2. Do you serve customers through multiple channels today? For many companies, this question comes down to support. One of the biggest gripes that many people have when they call a business for help is that the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. That processes and answers are different. Social business software promises to help equalize the experiences.
  3. Is your IT department on board? Forrester Research makes note of the fact that social business software will spook many IT organizations, because it puts control in the hands of line-of-business managers and not the technical types. This sort of software will require a different sort of evaluation and procurement process. But Kelly sums it up well: "The CIOs who fight it will be just like the CIOs that fought email."
  4. Are your people willing to share? For some employees, the idea of sharing years worth of experience in a place where everyone has access is akin to setting them up for a future layoff. Some people will want to hold their knowledge close, which will be counterproductive.
  5. Is your business willing to take a risk? Right now, social business software is pretty bleeding-edge. That means, it might be difficult to see an explicit "return on investment." For some companies, that will be tough to stomach.

Some people suggest that it is only a matter of time before social business software becomes commonplace, much like enterprise resource planning software did over the past 20 years. Although probably far more quickly. For now, though, it will take a special business personality to make social business software effective.

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure