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Tue 23 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Going social

The world of social media has hitherto been dominated by consumer sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Slowly but surely, however, these types of tools are creating equivalents within the enterprise workspace. Imthishan Giado finds out if companies are ready.

Going social
MCNABB: In the Middle East, there’s a worrying tendency to consider blogs and other social media platforms to be another form of publishing.
Going social
FERGUSON: Training shouldn’t come from the IT department and it needs to be continuous.
Going social
RIZVON: I haven’t seen a corporate usage of the social media throughout the region.
Going social
KILANI: I know many people use this technology to identify the right contact point.

The world of social media has hitherto been dominated by consumer sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Slowly but surely, however, these types of tools are creating equivalents within the enterprise workspace. Imthishan Giado finds out if companies are ready.

Here’s an example of how the world has changed in the last decade. Ten years ago, when the internet was still largely in its infancy, television news anchors would sign off their broadcast periods with an exhortation to write in with opinions about the day’s stories to a spoken e-mail address. Today – they read their twitter feeds live on the air.

Yes, social media has finally arrived. For many CIOs, the hype is inescapable. Wherever you turn to on the web, the ubiquitous “Share” button tells you that an article can be seamlessly crossposted to whatever social networking site you desire. So far, so consumer – but now it’s starting to make inroads into the enterprise space as well, as companies start to explore options in terms of involving the concept within their internal applications.

Rik Ferguson, senior security analyst at Trend Micro provides a few examples of how it can be used to facilitate communication: “Different companies have rolled it out to different extents within their own intranet. A really good example of a big corporation that uses social networking is IBM. They have been doing Innovation Jam since 2006 and they get literally tens of thousands of participants from across the globe, involving partners and customers. They use it for real time collaboration and actually end up launching products and services based on things that have surfaced – so they can see an actual, real return on the use of social networking.”

“We use it internally at Trend Micro,” he continues. “We have a Trend Space we use for corporate communications and innovation around technologies so people have a forum to discuss things in public. The great thing about using social networking in that context is that it’s a very flat hierarchy. You can engage with anybody who is part of the platform, it doesn’t need to necessarily respect the corporate hierarchy. It allows everybody to engage with each other.”

This equality of engagement is in many ways, the core tenet of the social networking movement. Where previously IT departments had a very top-down hierarchy with the CIO at the top and the various IT managers filtering down to the lowly grunt at the bottom, the advent of social networking paradigms shatters this order and makes the CIO more accessible to every staff member.

But, the question has to be asked – is this level of high accessibility something that CIOs actually want? Does it not, as some have claimed, simply add another tool to the ever-expanding list of applications and systems they have to administer? Mohammed Thameem Rizvon, group IT manager of retail group Kamal Osman Jamjoom (KOJ), initially resisted allowing his users to access social networking applications for fears of lost productivity. Eventually, he relented because he understood technology was pervasive – and in his own words, restrictions never work anyway.

“There’s a lot of negative usage because of Facebook – I wouldn’t say it’s addictive but it takes a lot of people’s time. Today we have opened it but in a controlled manner. What we’ve basically done is let people use it but if an individual misuses it, the manager has the authority to ask us for more information,” he states.

“What is relevant is for managers to look at the staff and see how their productivity is evolving. Facebook is a great tool if you use it in productivity. Today you have Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter – there is so much of social media available. It’s about seeing a benefit,” he enthuses.

Social media is of course, not just about Facebook usage. Bashar Kilani, software group executive, at proponent IBM Middle East says that the technology is already being used by regional companies, though they may not explicitly label it as such or even understand that their efforts count as social networking. Blogs, portals, internal wikis – anything user-editable is part of the movement.

“Most companies have, one way or the other, started to have their own internal social networking technologies, either by having wikis in place or an address book or contact book that grows to become an intranet portal or blog for internal communications and so on,” says Kilani. “There are two elements of the strategy. One is internal, focusing on getting people connected and more effective in the way they’re doing business. The other way is using social networking externally to improve relationships with partners and suppliers and increase business.”

Those instances are however, quite rare. Alexander McNabb, group account director at public relations firm Spot On is a vocal advocate of social networking, but even he will admit that it’s not quite taking off yet.
“At the moment here in the Middle East, the impact is limited. But you only have to look over the horizon to see the clouds in America and Europe to understand the impact is about to be very large indeed. It’s having some impact, but not so great as you’d publicly expect. Conversations are going on but companies are blissfully unaware of them,” he claims.

Rizvon agrees, and says that most firms are still struggling with the basics: “I haven’t seen very high usage. Organisations are trying to come up with things that they can use in social media. YouTube is an excellent tool, but how many corporates have started using YouTube? In terms of blogs, I’ve seen very minimal usage. Internal portals, yes – our organisation has a couple of portals we use. Blogs are a great idea to use. But again, I haven’t seen a corporate usage of the social media throughout the region.”

Part of the problem, he says, is the furious pace in regional development that has left many potential social contributors without the time to actively create compelling content.

“I’ve got a team and I know only three people who have their own blogs,” he confirms. “I know only one out of 30 who updates it very regularly. The rest of the people are followers and they like to read blogs, but it takes a lot of time to create one. The challenge with leaders is that they have so much to do. A blog is not part of their job description. How much time do they have? So they don’t update it – and if the blog followers don’t get what they want, there are always other options to go and get other information.”

Without compelling, regular content, any platform will wither and die quite quickly. Trend Micro’s Ferguson says firms need to approach the involvement challenge in the same way that social networking look at attracting new users.

“It’s about making it simple to use, engaging, instant and not something that you need to go on a three-day training course just to understand the interface. Wikipedia is a great example – wikis are something that translates very well into the corporate environment. Volunteers can contribute articles and information that’s relevant to various departments within a company. The rest of the company will be interested in consuming that media because it’s helpful in their daily lives,” he states.

The other element that many organisations also fail to consider is that of security and liability to libel for comments made both internally and externally. Spot On’s McNabb believes that it’s vitally important that companies involve HR in the designing of a social media policy.

“That’s an HR function, to set a clear social media policy so that all staff know what and what is not acceptable. For example, all the UK legal system has done is applying the precedent to online of offline activity. Defamation and libel are applied in the same way online that they would have been offline. In the Middle East, there’s a worrying tendency to consider blogs and other platforms to be another form of publishing. That sets some worrying benchmarks – but is it that going to stop companies doing it? I honestly don’t think so. It’ll have companies instituting more policies and making sure they behave consistent with the law, but you can’t stop the tide of change.”

Ferguson agrees, emphasising that the training stage is the real key to success: “It can’t be a one-time event. It needs to be a continuous thing, like daily small messages and the training isn’t going to come from the IT department. It’s going to be about what’s acceptable, what can you say, what can’t you say. If you’re using it in a professional capacity, then you’re not there to talk about what you did at the weekend, to talk about who’s broken up with who. Those are not professional messages and that’s exactly the kind of content that you need to handle in the training.”

In the end, Rivzon says, anything that brings you closer to your customers and staff is a good thing. But there’s a still long way to go.

“When Sam Walton started his first store, he knew every single customer so he could know their tastes. But as they grow, the success is that they can take information about customer purchases and decide on the corporate strategies. As you grow larger, you need to find a way to systemise your contacts,” he says.

“I would love to hear if there’s anyone who’s used any kind of social media. As of now, it’s a great tool but probably of better use for individuals side. Corporates still have to wait and watch,” concludes Rizvon.

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