What are the benefits and what are the risks of social networking? What is the exposure to data security risk, and how is it impacting staff efficiency and productivity? If, when and how to onboard this disruptive new technology? These are just some of the questions surrounding social media that are keeping CIOs awake at night.

The pros and cons of B2B social networking is one of the most hotly debated topics of today. For many CIOs it’s an integral part of business life, for others it’s a waste of time. One thing seems undeniable: whether you adopt it or not, social networking is going to have an increasing impact on business going forward.

What kind of impact? This depends on the core dynamics of a typical business environment, including employees, partners, service delivery models, financial drivers, corporate governance, process environment and organisational complexity. In an ideal world these components are already aligned to the overall corporate mission.

In this case adding a new element like social networking can be a disruptive event – something that changes how organisations interact with the world and/or our markets. What kind of disruption, and whether it is positive or negative, will be determined by how well existing business processes and infrastructures are able to manage, support and leverage their social networking strategy.

Social networking is about individuals- and staff members - interacting, sharing and collaborating around common trends, interests and experiences, facilitated by open sites likes Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Wikipedia and LinkedIn. These services are being driven forward by new technologies like realtime content creation, messaging, podcasting, RSS feeds, multimedia (video, photo galleries), realtime polling, popularity driven promotion, subscription and notification services and an ever-expanding list of others.

For the B2B space, the potential benefits of social networking range from project collaboration (enterprise or industry-wide) to partnership network building, customer support, corporate communication and product promotion. In this article we will focus on collaboration.


The pros and cons

Internet-based social networking is a quick, low-cost and ubiquitous way for project teams and business colleagues to exchange knowledge, evaluate and gather feedback in real-time. This in turn reduces time to market, improves sales, creates more effective marketing campaigns and speeds competitive analysis. But there is a downside. Unless it is working in synch with well-defined quality assurance, content management, security and governance processes, social networking can devolve into chatter that has little business benefit and results in lost productivity.

Without effective security oversight publishing sensitive material or a carelessly worded blog can invite fraud or reputation risk. Faced with these potential threats, market laggards are inclined to just avoid social networking altogether. However, not harnessing this new technology can mean a massive opportunity loss.

Three approaches

Three main strategies have evolved to address B2B social networking: Defensive (preventing staff access); Tolerant (controlled access); Encouraging (supports frequent use).

In the defensive model, employees are prohibited from using social networking at work, and this may be enforced via site management tools that that proactively block access. They may also be prohibited from mentioning the company on social media sites.

A tolerant strategy allows usage of some sites such as Facebook or YouTube as a perk, but only at specific times of the day or from particular devices. A policy may be in place to periodically review and approve new sites or adjust time allowances. IT security technologies can be applied to block or manage access and monitor content according to user-defined processes and policies.

The third approach actively encourages the use of both publicly available and internal social media tools with incentives to use favoured sites. Application training is provided along with educational programmes that give guidance on such things as publishing content that meets corporate and quality assurance standards, minimising the risk of fraud and avoiding misuse of the service. In this strategy, the benefits of social networking are highlighted, and business processes are aligned so that maximum use can be made of the deliverables generated.

Rarely is an organisation likely to adopt one of these models in isolation. Most, whether by default or decision, will employ a combination with a bias towards one or another.

Measuring what works

Whatever the strategy, in order to succeed social networking must be underpinned by a process and governance environment that ensures it has the platform to make a positive contribution to the corporate agenda with minimal risk. What if the operational framework is not aligned to support social networking? Or the company doesn’t even know its state of readiness? How do they set about finding out?

As mentioned at the start of this article, each aspect of the organisation (people, service delivery, complexity, process, technology, etc.) must be measured against best practice, not in isolation, but in the context of defined business goals. Is it is fit-for-purpose? Is it underperforming – or worse, is it undefined? Having completed this health check (which may be best outsourced to an expert), the task is to synchronise all components, existing and new, into a strategy that delivers business benefits greater than the sum of the parts.

Ken Ume, is Consulting Director, ImprovIT, an international benchmarking and business technology consultancy.