In the past most organizations had clear-cut boundaries and roles were well-defined. While they had to be responsive to customers, major decisions were left to management and communications with employees and customers were typically one-way. With the emergence of social media and non-traditional ecosystems, interactions tend to be two-way and change can be driven by any number of stakeholders, including employees, partners and suppliers.
In order to thrive in this environment businesses are deploying and using new social tools and taking advantage of the many new business opportunities. Organizations are evolving to be social businesses, which are defined as those that have the strategies and technologies that allow all parts of their ecosystems to be engaged, create value, form relationships and make decisions. Social business is the latest step in the evolution of business that began with the advent of the Internet and electronic communications. In these organizations work is accomplished differently and products and services are created and purchased in new ways. Since social businesses can adapt to their environments, they are well suited to meet the changing needs of their internal and external constituencies.
IBM, one of the company’s leading in social business, has identified three distinct characteristics of a social business:
Engaged—deeply connecting people, including customers, employees, and partners, to be involved in productive, efficient ways.
Transparent—removing boundaries to information, experts and assets, helping people align every action to drive business results.
Nimble—speeding up business with information and insight to anticipate and address evolving opportunities.
There are many advantages to becoming a social business. Internally these organizations often have better business performance, are more efficient, have better insights and knowledge, are more aware of new opportunities, have better collaboration , more efficient processes and avoid duplication of efforts. Externally, they can have lower customer care costs, better customer satisfaction and loyalty, lower marketing and sales costs, better brand reputations and lower product development costs.
It is difficult for any organization to go from being an isolated entity to being social business, although few organizations are really totally isolated any more. Organizations need to develop the strategies and tools that will enable them to move along this continuum. They need to go from having an inside out point of view to an outside in point of view and they have must have technologies that enable collaboration and the sharing of insights and knowledge.
While increasing employee and customer engagement is usually welcome, not every social business initiative will succeed and it is important that an organization experiments with new approaches, learns from mistakes and moves on when something doesn’t work. Having leaders who are not afraid to take risks is one important step. Having employees who know how to be digital citizens is another. Employees must have the training necessary to understand how to behave and to manage their own reputations and that of their employers.
Although social businesses may be relatively new entities, the number of social business is growing. A 2011 social business survey by International Data Corporation (IDC) showed that 41% of respondents have some sort of social business initiative underway. What they found, however, is that these projects vary greatly. They ranged from grassroots bottom-up employee initiatives to sophisticated and strategic social customer engagement programs.
So while there is no “one size fits all” way to be a social business, the message is clear; if you run a business, you should think about where you are on the continuum from isolation to integration to stakeholder optimization and develop a plan to transform your organization into a social one. Otherwise your business risks being endangered.