In most organizations, social media established a marketing beachhead. It served its purpose by raising awareness of a new set of technologies based on new principles of peer-to-peer discussion, openness, and cross-boundary communities. Indeed: the marketing organization has put social media technologies to work with very visible effect.
But we need to break out social media and talk about more than marketing and technology. Instead, we need to talk about what social media enables: the ability to collaborate in new ways — which is particularly important for business leaders interested in creating more collaborative, innovative, and engaging organizations.
An executive may boast, "We have Twitter and SharePoint, and we’re on Facebook." But if you were to ask the executive how social media is positively impacting business results, you may raise a significant issue. When social media is applied to marketing, it creates activity — and in marketing, activity is a good thing. But activity alone does not create business results.
The use of these platforms can truly transform a business by moving beyond brand marketing. Social media has enabled business leaders to think differently about how they engage and interact with both customers and employees. But just because you’ve opened the door doesn’t mean you’ve crossed the threshold into a new way of working, managing, and leading. To achieve those ends — we’ve described these as attributes of a "social organization" — it takes more than setting loose the technology and praying that something good will happen.
A social organization strategically applies "mass collaboration" by combining technology, community, and purpose. It addresses significant challenges or opportunities through the creation of purpose-driven collaborative communities that are enabled by social media.
As we have said in previous posts, every organization is social, but few are social organizations. Mass collaboration gives an organization the ability to amplify its capabilities by raising the engagement, innovation, and involvement of people, internally and externally.
Thinking about social media in terms of social organization and mass collaboration increases its potential value. Social media requires more than new technology, and its application can breathe new life into business processes, practices, and challenges.
We need to move beyond social media as a technology tool. We need to determine how to apply that tool along with others in order to do things that were previously impossible or prohibitively expensive.
Some organizations are already doing it. Consider CEMEX’s SHIFT initiatives, which have radically reduced cycle time and increased results via mass collaboration. Loyola University Chicago engages prospective students in ways that have raised the quality of its admission decisions, improving revenue realization by 15%. And Electronic Arts has created collaborative decision making that fosters creativity, rather than fight it.
If we don’t break out social media from marketing, it will likely join other technologies that remain popular buzzwords but have fallen short of their potential value — business intelligence, knowledge management, customer relationship management. Also, we risk breaking the promise of social media marketing when customers are served through autocratic business processes. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can create a truly social organization that can deliver enhanced value to customers and employees who expect more than marketing from these new technologies.
So as a business leader, talk about social media technology, celebrate the marketing results it achieves, but recognize that this is just a start. Break out social media from its marketing beachhead. Think about how you can create mass collaboration and become a social organization.
That will move you past brand awareness and send you on the path to breakthrough performance.
This post is adapted from a version we originally ran on Harvard Business Review blogs on November 16, 2011. There is a good conversation going on around the original post.
I co-authored a book "The Social Organization" on Amazon.com . Check it out!
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