Corp social networks driving sales through better information

Companies are increasingly exploiting corporate social networks with the ultimate payoff being increased sales from the provision of faster and better information for customers.

Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Yammer for $1.2 billion dollars is one that can demonstrates in dollar terms how seriously the IT industry is taking social networking within the enterprise. It’s also, according to Jim Lundy, an analyst at Aragon Research, “evidence of a shift by the legacy technology giants like Microsoft to embrace the Cloud world,” Brandon Butler reported.

CIO Australia spoke to several organisations — differing in scale and operation — who have embraced social networking. They talked about the impact of the technology on their staff and their operations and the issues you need to consider when pursuing these strategies.

Hire a Hubby is a 15-year-old handy-man property maintenance franchise business with more than 300 independent franchise operators in Australia. The organisation has recently embraced social networking using Salesforce.com’s Chatter service as a way of unifying an otherwise very disparate operation. Its practitioners are drawn from eclectic backgrounds, from investment banking to traditional trades, said CEO Brendan Green. As such they vary greatly in their experience and comfort around information technology.

According to Green, “One of the things we were looking to replace was a pretty clunky old forum where our guys would get on and share information typically of an evening. They get home and when they are putting their quotes together that was the time they would think to use something like the Internet to do their day-to-day work.”

That has now been replaced by Chatter. “The biggest thing they get out of it and what we were looking for as a franchise business is visibility of what's going on in the business,” Green said.

Married with rapid adoption of smartphones by the operators, the Chatter system has generated a platform for greater coordination and cooperation between franchisees.

“When something unforeseen crops up on a job rather than trying to ring five or 10 of their contacts one of the uses of Chatter is just to let other Hire a Hubby operators know they are stuck on a job and need advice or help.

“We often have two Hire a Hubby vans parked within a mile of each other but neither knows that the other is there. Now with the location pinning available in Chatter the guys can say, ‘I am just ‘round the corner I will give him a call and help him out.’”

Green has discovered other benefits from the Chatter system as well — and it’s a function of the franchisee operators becoming more enthused and engaged.

“We work closely with Bunnings, for instance. They have a new web portal which allows our guys to get all the prices for every Bunnings store — they can get shopping cards and attach them to quotes so if the customers have a query they can use that to go back and see how the quote was formed. “One guy went through and put together his own version of ‘How I use the Bunnings Web Portal’ and posted it. It's now the most downloaded document on our Chatter and through that system it made its way into our official library of documents .”

A world away from Australia’s suburbs, social media is also having a big impact on the international operations of IT services company Unisys.

According to Gloria Burke, director of knowledge & collaboration strategy and governance for Unisys, the company is using social media to provide seamless connectivity to information experts at the time of need. Basically, breaking down silos.

Burke led the global implementation of the project, branded Inside Unisys. It is being rolled out to 16,000 of the company’s 21,000 employees. “Those missing are largely drawn from government agencies with their own quite specific rules about security,” she said.

The project was initiated in part to take control of an otherwise organic and unstructured process which saw many of the company’s business units implementing their own piecemeal solutions. For example, its engineering group was using Yammer. “For us, strategically it was important to ensure conversations about our IP, or customer discussions were kept behind the firewall.”

Unisys opted for Microsoft SharePoint-based solutions but with specific integrations to systems like Salesforces.com’s Chatter solution for its sales operations and NewsGator for microblogging. It also hooks into the company’s HR systems to “enhance the ability to find experts”, said Burke. Inside Unisys reaches 91 per cent of employees and simply having all those staff on one platform “provides a big benefit for us”, said Burke.

Fostering and promoting the corporate culture was a major driver of the project which was initiated and promoted by CEO Ed Coleman. “For new employees it’s a great way to develop an internal profile quickly and also to reach out to key contacts within the organization,” he said. “We are also seeing increased efficiencies and seamless sharing and that feeds into both the development of new innovations and refining currently innovations.”

Burke believes another advantage is that Inside Unisys generates is market place agility. “We are now able to respond much more quickly and effectively to customer needs. For instance, subject matter experts can be located much more quickly.”

Another important payoff for Unisys is that the social networking approach leads to, “a more consistent capturing, repurposing and reuse of knowledge and the sharing lessons learned from client engagements increases the quality and evolution of the company’s offerings, new ideas are turned into new innovations and customer responsiveness and satisfaction is increased.”

Burke’s comments are echoed by Andrew Neumann, the managing director of local IT services company OBS. According to Neumann, the real payoff from a corporate social network comes from unlocking the potential of the organisation’s people. “The value and competitive advantage for an organisation is almost always contained in its people. Social networks are an obvious extension in the way this knowledge can be made available, used and reused. A social network is about forming relationships, regardless of technology.”

He noted that employees who are geographically (or hierarchically) distant are suddenly able to communicate and share ideas in an informal manner with their otherwise distant colleagues. “This means that literally anyone can contribute an idea to the business.”

Neumann said that establishing relationships also encourages trust between disparate communities. “Individuals interact as human beings and not as ‘employees’ or ‘roles’. This leads to pro-active knowledge sharing and the ability to organically improve best practices and solve business problems – all without having to rely on traditional, formal processes.”

According to Neumann, “It is important to remember that information is only valuable if it is appropriate for its audience and accurate. The challenge for organisations in developing their own social networks is to define the rules around its use and to make it part of their overall knowledge and information management approach.”

That of course raised the important issue of how companies establish sufficient control in an environment that naturally tends to go towards an outcome where everybody is able to share everything with anyone. After all, silos exist for a reason.

“Information should be shared as widely as it can within an organisation to maximise its value.

“However, this must go hand in hand with policies, procedures and systems which determine access to this information. All organisations should develop their own information security policy which will then inform procedures to manage and guide staff in their responsibilities in securing content. The information management systems that are implemented must support those security policies.”

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