The social side of IT


editor's corner

Jason Meyers

For every person in the online world who pledges their allegiance to one or more social media platforms, there is likely someone in the enterprise IT world talking about how social media has no place in the business environment.

That's understandable, considering the perception (and, in many cases, the reality) that social media is nothing more than a time-waster for businesses. Sure, maybe there are ways Twitter and Facebook and other social platforms can be used by marketing departments to promote products and services and events for different types of businesses--but beyond that, isn't social media mostly a distraction for workforces who tweet and check Facebook on company time?

A recent study from the McKinsey Global Institute takes a much broader view of the value of social media for businesses. The report, The Social Economy: Unlocking Value and Productivity Through Social Technologies, explores the ways social technologies and platforms can be used not only for marketing and customer engagement, but also for communications enhancement and collaboration within and across enterprises. The report finds that social media actually has the power to boost the productivity of workers--an idea that certainly runs contrary to the views of many business owners and IT professionals who believe their employees should be banned from using social media in the workplace because it eats away at their productivity.

The report's findings indicate that enterprises must shift the way they think about social media in the workplace, considering it a communications tool rather than a distraction. As a synopsis of the study states, "To reap the full benefit of social technologies, organizations must transform their structures, processes, and cultures: they will need to become more open and nonhierarchical and to create a culture of trust. Ultimately, the power of social technologies hinges on the full and enthusiastic participation of employees who are not afraid to share their thoughts and trust that their contributions will be respected."

An article in The Financial Times by two of the report's authors goes into more depth on how social media can be embedded into a company's IT platform: "A key capability of social technologies is enabling participants in online social groups to create content, share it, comment on the content of others, recommend content from other sources, and instantaneously make it available to everyone in the community … What is even more important for enterprise users is that communications that take place on social platforms become content. This means that every item posted on an online community site becomes part of a permanent, searchable archive."

According to the report, that searchable, social-fueled archive has the potential to replace email as a way to communicate--an important productivity point, given that the study estimates the typical worker spends 13 hours a week writing, reading and answering email and another nine hours a week tracking down information.

The McKinsey study raises some intriguing points and some potentially important new roles for social media in the enterprise. But it will require some fundamental shifts in thinking on the part of business owners and IT professionals--as well as employees--or social media to move from a purely social (and perceived time-wasting) technology to a platform integral to the improved productivity of workers and an ultimate performance booster for companies. --Jason Meyers