Social Networking €“ the pill for painful Cloud adoption?

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I recently read an interesting report from The Economist on social networking “A world of connections”, and I agree with the authors that we’re in the midst of a profound change.

The authors concluded that: “the most important contribution that the sites have made is to offer a free and immensely powerful set of communication and collaboration tools to everyone on Earth who has access to a broadband internet connection.

This democratisation of technology is driving the socialisation of the Web and fundamentally changing the way that people interact with one another, as well as with businesses and governments.”

It’s no wonder then that there is a convergence around the implications of social networking for software-as-a-service and cloud computing. Of course, the most popular social networking sites are examples of multi-tenant cloud platforms, but it is typically the viral nature in adoption of these technologies and the resulting increased collaboration that is generating the most interest.

For example, let’s examine one area where this is a particularly hot topic: user adoption. User adoption has long been a big problem for many sales organisations using sales tools, even if they run in the cloud.

Part of the issue, as I have blogged about previously, is that contrary to popular belief, these tools are not necessarily 'self-adopting'. Even when the user value proposition is well defined, I often still hear sales managers say “I’m pumping all this data into the system and getting little out of it!” Many see these types of tools as just helping their sales management rather than actually helping them to sell.

  1. Sales managers already suffer from ‘massive information overload’ – and they certainly don’t see subscribing to additional feeds as helping the cause
  2. Sales managers spend a lot of time looking for stuff – the right collateral, the right people to work with, and the right tactics to make the sale
  3. Everyone knows that sales managers want to spend more time in front of customers, yet these tools seem to encourage them to be more internal-facing

These issues are not trivial. Can social networking together with cloud computing really make a difference here? In my view, the answer is almost certainly ‘yes’. However, this is not simply about mashing-up sales managers’ Facebook and Twitter accounts with their cloud sales tools. The most successful approach is far more thoughtful…

Firstly, the age-old “less is more” is very true here. Rather than just increasing sources of information for sales managers to look at, sales managers are demanding it to be far more targeted. What really excites them is truly actionable intelligence: give them something that gives them an edge against a competitor or a head-start on an opportunity.

This is gold for most sales managers and a fantastic incentive to enter more relevant data into the sales tool if it improves the level of targeting in a demonstrable way.

The ability of cloud capabilities to integrate internal and external customer insight combined with social networking techniques of personalization are increasingly helpful to narrow down context. Of course the other aspect here is making the process so easy to use that it’s hard to imagine not doing it to save time (i.e. catering to sales managers’ individual preferences for mobile access, voice to text, etc.).

Another key requirement is to provide active guidance and collaboration. Many sales support tools are passive today.

The onus remains on the sales manager to hunt down the most appropriate up-to-date content and identify the right experts, across all kinds of internal portals, knowledge bases and contact lists – no wonder so much time is wasted! Most often sales managers just default to their personal network to avoid the headache. ‘Active’ support is directive, pointing sales managers to the right content, people and tactics at the right time.

Many tools now embed ‘Amazon-style’ recommendations into their sales engines. Social networking integrated with cloud tools go even further to leverage the power of the extended community both within and external to an organisation. Indirect channel sales is in need of this type of collaboration as solution sales across multiple parties get increasingly complex.

Given that the business processes for these interactions are not set in stone and are often constantly evolving, cloud computing capabilities are well suited to these needs by enabling processes to adapt in situ.

Finally, getting closer to the customer is becoming more of a possibility. One emerging example is for sales managers tapping into social cloud-based customer forums to share references and credentials.

Of course, such indirect contacts can backfire when a sales manager wants to remain more ‘in control’ but the customer trust engendered by such interactions often significantly offsets the risk.

As The Economist report points out, major barriers and risks remain that counter the rise of social networking in the enterprise environment.

Indeed, these same issues beset the adoption of cloud computing, too – concerns on data privacy, reliability and ‘control’ of these services, the lack of overall governance processes and proven at-scale business operating models. However, many organisations are jumping feet first to try out these new capabilities and are using the experience to help build out the processes and models.

In advising my clients, there are two things that I emphasize: The first is that there is no single technology platform silver bullet – looking for one is a pointless endeavor. By definition, these models are highly heterogeneous with multiple platforms co-existing to meet different needs. The second point is not to use this as an excuse to avoid creating a business case.

Once you’re past experimentation, it remains critically important to identify the business value. What is interesting is that as cloud/social hybrid capabilities advance, the business case is likely to be both finer-grain and highly dynamic with differences by user role and changing value over time.

Once that happens, the profound predictions for the way we work and interact with each other are likely just around the corner.

Saideep Raj is Accenture Global SaaS Lead

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