The rapid adoption of social media and mobile computing is transforming how businesses in every industry relate to their customers. From marketing, to brand management, to customer loyalty programs, business is adapting to the digital behaviors of customers and learning a new paradigm: the "customer network."
But customer networks are not only found outside the organization in the social behavior of shoppers, voters, fans and volunteers. Customer networks can also be found inside every business, shaping how employees share, communicate and collaborate at the workplace.
The rise of the networked employee poses great opportunities for business, while demanding leadership to break through organizational silos and develop a new corporate culture, ethos and leadership skills.
A Cross-Generational Shift
At many businesses, younger employees are in the vanguard, driving workplace practices based on a culture of social media and mobile work style. A recent Cisco study found that one in three college students and young professionals consider Internet access to be as vital as air, food and shelter. Seventy percent of them have already "friended" their managers or coworkers on a social network like Facebook or Twitter.
Yet younger employees are not the only ones whose behaviors have shifted. A recent Nielsen study found that the growth of mobile social networking is now being driven by Baby Boomers, and that even Americans 65 years and older are just 9 percent less likely to be on social media than the average.
Three Features of Network-Oriented Organizations
By examining today's most forward-thinking organizations, we can already identify three features of network-oriented businesses. They are increasingly:
Borderless: Networked organizations tend to have relatively porous boundaries separating their own departments from their outside partners, customers, press and other key constituencies.
Collaborative: Rather than settling for simple market research "reconnaissance," these organizations actively seek out ideas from customers and partners, exchange information with them, and involve them in innovation and value creation.
Pervasively-networked: All divisions and functions of the organization are engaging with customer networks, and digital technologies are used to connect across disciplines and departments within the organization as well.
Everyone's Job, Everyone's Department
In speaking of the staffing of social media jobs within companies, Edelman's Steve Rubel has remarked that social media should not be 100 percent of anyone's job; rather, it should be 1 percent of everyone's job. The same rule can be applied to collaboration and networking within the organization.
In order to maximize the opportunities of social and mobile tools, businesses need to avoid sequestering their digital strategy within a single department (typically marketing or corporate communications). These same tools can be used not just to market a brand on Facebook, but to conduct real-time consumer research, to expand the inputs for innovation within the company, to better enable the sales force in the field, to improve customer service, to optimize customer relationship management, and to improve how Human Resources attracts and retains talent.
Social Media Comes to the Intranet
As IT departments look to enable customer network strategies across all divisions of a company, and between them, they are increasingly adopting enterprise social software (ESS). These tools bring together social media like blogs, status updates and discussion forums, along with mobile apps and traditional intranet features like videoconferencing and document sharing. They allow employees to post, comment, chat and ask questions of colleagues around the world. And they rely on features familiar from Facebook or Twitter: creating profiles, following specific people, and joining sub-groups or discussion forums.
Companies adopting ESS range from Dell, Nikon and GE, to 7-Eleven and the Caesar's casino. Their employees are applying ESS for a variety of uses: soliciting feedback on work, collaborating on a project across geographic regions, sharing best practices (e.g. sales tips) for colleagues in similar positions, polling a group of coworkers, leveraging collective knowledge, finding the right expert within an organization, and sharing reusable content (e.g. marketing assets).
Culture is King
Companies expect the use of these social tools within their intranets to grow rapidly over the next few years. As they grow, they will require more than a shift in communications protocols (e.g., should I email this with a CC list? Or post it to a forum?). The success of the networked organization will depend on a shift in organizational culture as well.
In order to fully leverage the capabilities of their own employee networks, businesses will need to evolve towards less centralized planning, more distributed management styles, and less rigid divisions into functional "silos" (marketing vs. innovation vs. public relations, etc.). Leadership will need to encourage and to model more agile and collaborative approaches to business. Managers will need to learn the skills of community building and forum moderation. And employees will need to learn to translate their social media skills from the personal realm to the work realm.
More than any choice of software, or redrawing of an org chart, it is this kind of cultural change that will mark the networked organizations of tomorrow.
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