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Dion Hinchcliffe's Next-Generation Enterprises

Dion Hinchcliffe

Social Media and Workforce Collaboration: A Checkpoint

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It's been a few years now since Enterprise 2.0 first arrived on the scene as a concept, back in 2006. At the time -- and even now -- the premise was compelling: As social media became a primary means of communication in the consumer world, a similar transformation would inevitably happen in the workforce. The associated benefits, such as more shared and open work processes, the accumulation of actionable collective intelligence, improved expertise location, and much more were expected. It would be a challenge for some organizations, as social media is largely a consumer-driven phenomenon, but it would happen.

Given that Enterprise 2.0 is now just over 5 years old, we should have a much clearer picture on how it all turned out, right? Intranets should be far more social and consist of a grand narration of worker activity, vital information should be far easier to locate in internal channels of social media, experts should be rapidly locatable with rich user profiles and reputation systems, and so on. Fortunately, the evidence for benefits is now much clearer, but I find that it's still fragmented and poorly understood. It's also very much a work in progress in most organizations. Below is an attempt to summarize what we now know.

Key Benefits Of Social Business Workforce Collaboration & Enterprise 2.0

Far from fixing something that wasn't broken, there was certainly significant room for improvement on the old IT solutions for communication and collaboration back in 2006. That much was clear from the outset: E-mail is often a costly time-waster and is far too closed off, trapping critical business information behind an inbox silo that's also increasingly considered a legal liability by many companies. Knowledge workers still spend up to a day a week looking for information to do their jobs. I would note that both these trends are currently the case. The links in this paragraph point to recent data to support this.

Enterprise 2.0 Adoption Is Widespread, But Spotty

One potentially bright spot, however, is the growing use of social media on corporate intranets, which Toby Ward estimates will have reached an 87% penetration rate in 2011, at least at some level. Earlier this year I synthesized all available data on strategic Enterprise 2.0 adoption at present, and came away with the following:

1) Enterprises are 2-4 years behind the rest of the world in adoption of social software. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but the lag is generally widespread, significant, and sustained, yet it's not currently widening. This means while most people in the developed world use Facebook and Twitter, enterprise social networks and related tools are holding a steady gap, yet may even be catching up.

2) Despite some reports of relatively low levels of adoption (such as the 35% Enterprise 2.0 usage rate of Gen-X'ers in Forrester's latest survey), this is exactly where consumer social networking itself was only 3-4 years ago. Frankly, numbers like this actually say that tens of millions of people are using social media in the workplace in North America alone. Such stats are also on the low side, with some numbers as high as 70% (Jane McConnell's survey numbers.) So, in actually adoption of social media is apparently happening both statistically and anecdotally. As we've seen in the Social Business Council, a large percentage of Global 2000 companies are organizing for internal use of what's increasingly being called social business (in lieu of the older term, Enterprise 2.0.)

So businesses are behind yet workers are changing their habits and beginning to incorporate social media in how they work together and accomplish business objectives. If that's the case, can we get a sense of what's being accomplished? The bottom line for some decision makers is if there is a qualitative and/or quantitative difference that can be discerned by using social media to get work done.

Mckinsey 2010 Social Business Benefits

Probably the two most authoritative sources I've seen in the last year come from McKinsey and IBM. They conducted surveys that had both breadth and depth across different industries, geographic regions, and business functions. Both of them show a broad perception by those in affected organizations that the move to social business methods can drive real results. The two leading benefits that both survey had in common were better access to local expertise (52% and 84%) and improved sharing of knowledge (77% and 84%), other benefits were reported as well, including lower costs and higher revenue. Jive Software also reported interesting results in its survey last year, though finding that improved access to experts only improved 34%, providing quite the spread on the benefits, though still double digits across the board.

Unfortunately, as compelling as these three sets of data are for the benefits of internal social business, they have to be taken with a grain of salt. McKinsey and IBM both provide consulting services for social business while IBM and Jive also provide social business software. In other words, they have some bias, though I currently believe the data is largely accurate.

IBM - Impact of Social Collaboration

As a checkpoint, can we cross match these figures from other, more impartial sources? For this, I've used the Frost and Sullivan survey data for a while now, but it's getting a little long in the tooth (as are all of these) and the most recent data doesn't show benefits, just executive focus and prioritization, which is putting social media ahead of telepresence, VoIP, shared team spaces, soft phones, and unified communications.

Are Industries Actually Seeing the Benefit?

For an effective cross check, I find it's useful to look at specific industry reports, rather than broad based surveys. This gives a better sense of what's actually happening with enough business context to matter. Here's what I've been able to assemble:

Insurance. A recent survey from Strategy Meets Action shows that 79% of property and casualty insurers say that social media plays an important role in normal business operations. While "only" 65% of life and health insurers do, these are in fact high numbers. Some of this represents internal and some external activity, so it's difficult to separate it out, but it's clear that the insurance industry is adopting social media from an operational perspective.

Healthcare. With 75% of health care professionals self-reporting that they're using social media in a work capacity this year, it indicates something significant is happening even as the industry is seriously challenged by HIPAA privacy laws and other regulations that govern the use of patient information. Interestingly, despite the challenges, organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs and the prestigious Mayo Clinic have begun using cross-border Enterprise 2.0 to collaborate with patients in areas like treatment and clinical trials. This underscores the point that the most useful and effective collaborate often takes place between all relevant participants, rather than just workers alone.

Manufacturing. A survey last year of manufacturing professionals found that a quarter of them felt the need to improve collaboration, with nearly 60% of them seeing the potential of marrying social media and their supply chain/ERP. In their view, while a number of benefits can result, the leading two are no surprise: 68% said social media streamlines communication within the enterprise while 61% said it can drive lean initiatives by collaborative documenting business processes. I've touched on the close connection between social and agile/lean before, and this is just further confirmation.

Finance. Like healthcare, finance is another "difficult" industry when it comes to social media. Yet the story is surprisingly strong here, with only 15% of banks in a recent survey saying they don't use social media at all. The remaining uses go well beyond social marketing and include market tracking and customer service. Fully a third reporting using social media for internal communications, though there's no breakdown to say if that's just corporate communications or everyone in the company. As for perceived benefits, that's decidedly harder to pin down. However, some useful reports exist. A Q&A this year with Paul Butcher, director of communications central for Citi, a financial firm that employs social media for collaboration with about a third of it's 260,000 workers, confirm the general survey data. Paul says Enterprise 2.0 is about "enabling people working on similar projects or facing similar challenges to connect and share insights and connections. The traditional ways of finding things don't always work, whereas if you can use these social tools, you generally can get to what you're looking for more efficiently." This falls squarely in the improved knowledge sharing and access to experts camps. I'm collating more data on the performance of financial services with internal social business and will report it in the future.

Benefits Exist In Most Industries

The bottom line is that it's easy to find evidence and widespread interest in using social media to galvanize the productivity and efficiency of workers. The bottom-line question by non-adopters at this point will be whether most organizations will actually see the types of results claimed by the various data cited above. I'd say that the growing preponderance of evidence says that it's highly likely. In addition, industries are not the only ones benefits, and we see functions like project management self-reporting benefits from social media collaboration across the board.

At the beginning of this year, I conducted a breakdown of our Social Business Council data and came up with the industries that were leading adoption of internal social media. This is another fruitful line of research and it shows which industries believe they are most likely to benefit. This and other data will be my focus in upcoming posts as I take a more industry focused approached to social business to see what the differences are as well as the similarities to see how techniques and best practices are applied.

Related: Open Work: Using Social Software To Make Our Work Visible Again

Note: As I was writing this, McKinsey's fifth yearly survey of social business was published. I'll summarize its findings on ZDNet shortly, but wanted to draw it to your attention as it shows the benefits hold steady over the three years they tracked them.

Dion Hinchcliffe

Dion Hinchcliffe is an internationally recognized business strategist and enterprise architect View more

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