It takes extraordinary chutzpah to promote a vision before it can be fully realized by your audience, let alone your company. IBM did just that in 1997 when it introduced the notion of e-business. Fourteen years later, it is doing it again with a concept they call social business. Given its prescience about e-business, a concept that radically transformed how companies buy and sell their products, it is hard to dismiss their latest idée fixe.
That said, getting your arms around this grandiose idea is not easy. Ethan McCarty, Senior Manager of Digital and Social Strategy at IBM, spent the better part of an hour with me explaining the ins and outs while providing specific examples of how IBM is testing various social business approaches both internally and externally. In the end, I came away with these seven reasons why just about every company should be thinking about becoming a social business.
1. Social media will be dwarfed by social business
While social media has helped many companies become more customer-centric, it is treated primarily as a modestly effective marketing tool. McCarty explained, “Social media is about media and people, which is one dimension of the overall world of business. With social business you start to look at the way people are interacting in digital experiences and apply the insights derived to a wide variety of different business processes.”
2. People do business with people, not companies
One of the notions behind becoming a social business is that your employees should be front and center in your digital activities. “Since IBM no longer sells consumer products, the brand experience for IBM is an experience with an IBMer,” an experience that is increasingly happening online, McCarty said. To support this idea, IBM recently started adding IBM “experts” to various web pages–an action that in A/B testing dramatically improved page performance and revealed increased confidence and trust in IBM in focus groups.
3. Your employees need to be digital citizens, too
Becoming a social business means recognizing the need for your employees to become “digital citizens” and providing the training for them to manage their digital reputations. Accordingly, IBM not only trains its experts extensively, it is now building out “personal dashboards” to help them see the impact of their various interactions. “Good conversation creates good outcomes and that brings value to the organization and to the individual,” McCarty said.
4. You don’t need to eat the whole social business elephant in one bite
When asked, “How do you eat an elephant?” the sage pygmy replied, “One bite at a time.” And so it is with social business initiatives. IBM itself tried a number of different approaches internally: First by using a wiki to draft its social computing guidelines, and more recently by offering a “Social Computing Demystified” course to help more IBMers become digital citizens. These smaller building blocks helped pave the way for bigger initiatives like the expertise locator that now taps into nearly 3,000 IBMers from around the world.
5. A social business can be a good business, too
The same tools and processes that go into creating a social business can also be put to use for social good. To test this notion and in honor of its 100th anniversary, IBM asked every employee “to take a full day and dedicate it to skills-based service.” Calling it the Centennial Celebration of Service, thousands of IBMers shared their expertise and then their experiences on IBM100.com. “Now you have in this social business program the permissioning and guidance matched with content so IBMers can get started and experiment [with social business],” said McCarty.
6. Enough already with the useless email chains
Most companies rely on email as the primary means to share information among employees, despite the havoc it often creates. “Email is a very limited tool and does a lot of things to silo work efforts,” McCarty noted. Calling it “completely antisocial,” McCarty believes that a social business needs to employ more collaborative digital work tools (well beyond email) that are asynchronous, enabling a geographically disperse team to do great work together.
7. It’s okay to fail as long as you do it quickly
Since not every social business initiative will take hold, it is important to try lots of approaches and move on when one doesn’t work. IBM describes this as “agile development.” “You can’t spend 10 months planning it and then launching it–the idea is to learn quickly and if we need to, fail quickly,” McCarty said. As case in point, McCarty claims the first iteration of their expertise locator went from concept to a test on IBM.com in four weeks with new iterations following in monthly succession sprints as short as two weeks. McCarty firmly believes this particular social business program, although still in its infancy, has infinite possibilities.