Industryweek 2446 Social Media

Viewpoint: Three Ways to Fuel Innovation Through Social Media

May 29, 2012
Firms must embrace a new level of employee empowerment to fully leverage social media.

Despite the widespread use of social media among all age groups in our society, many business leaders are still figuring out how to make the best use of the rapidly changing tools available.

Many of the clients we work with find it especially challenging to integrate social technologies inside the firm and to encourage their use throughout the enterprise. In past articles we have advocated social media as a major force for stimulating creative discussions and fueling innovation.

A number of executives share with us a common concern: Having invested in technologies and strategies for using social media with employees and customers, the usage turned out to be less than desired. What can be done?

The first step lies in understanding how social media differs from other forms of expression in the workplace. Unlike email, social media has opened up a wide array of opportunities for sharing your personal expression through words, sounds and images with selected people. Consequently, it stands in opposition to what most employees still view as the nature of their firms, which is top-down, mandated and regulated.

When employee perceptions of their firms are of control and scrutiny, it is natural that many employees shy away from using internal social media tools provided by their firm, such as Yammer, because of a lack of trust: Are my ideas acceptable and valuable or will they be disruptive and met with hostility by my bosses or other departments?

The external challenge of social media for companies is a bit different than internal, because it relates to the specific customer frameworks and sales models of the firm.

Take, for example, the case of one large home products retailer. Its marketing and sales teams wanted to build more personal connections with consumers.

The challenge: It was difficult to validate whether store traffic was directly attributable to enhancements in social media activities, and the data technology for capturing customer behavior at the store level was not linked to the insights captured from social media analysis.

Hence, two systems were talking past each other to no common effect. Moreover, multiple departments were operating in parallel. IT had responsibility for the CRM systems. Marketing and public relations for steering the social media interaction. Sales had a third social media system.

Not surprisingly, it took considerably more work to reverse-engineer the integration process than if it had been started collaboratively, with a holistic system in mind.

For companies still figuring out the best way to actively exploit social media, the following steps have proved useful:

1. Find the Innovation Ambassadors Within the Firm

Within every organizational system there are individuals who are idea generators or idea carriers. They tend to be individuals who have trusted relationships, the people one seeks for advice, or who seek others out to share ideas. Finding them is not a top-down exercise; most CEOs or top executives would be hard-pressed to name or locate these informal networks of people. But they are important both as early adopters of technology and as a source of ideas for their use.

A simple survey among the employees that asks, "Who is your trusted source of ideas?" and "Who do you go to share your ideas?" or similar trust-based questions tend bring those individuals to the surface.

2. Cross-Fertilize Your "Social Media Teams"

Having motivated leaders is only part of the solution. You must get to the right mix of skills and connections. For example, a team that wants you to link employees within the firm to customers and stakeholders outside, may want to include a sales person for front-line experience, a human resources representative to see how employees can be rewarded for being a stakeholder social ambassador, and someone from IT to make sure that any data collected from the social interaction is looped into a secure CRM platform.

3. Experimental Leadership

Senior executives must get comfortable with, and be encouraging of, employees using social media in a variety of ways. Employees should operate within the bounds of propriety and clearly expressed legal policies around civility and protecting company secrets. Individuals and teams should make the most of social media as a means of sharing product ideas internally and with trusted suppliers. They should be allowed to form trusted relationships with customers to build up loyalty and repeat demand for the firm's products.

Social media, when used with enthusiasm, can be a channel for creativity within the firm. And those are powerful triggers for a competitive enterprise in what is still a challenging economic environment.

Andrew Goldberg serves as executive vice president of public relations firm Makovsky & Co. Inc.'s Corporate Advisors division,which counsels CEOs and other C-suite executives in restructuring, change management and M&A situations. Goldberg was previously the president of WPP-owned Pivot Red and chairman of the corporate practice at Burson-Marsteller. He earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University in international affairs, specializing in the psychology of decision-makers under stress.

See also:

10 Essential Social Media Tips for Senior Executives

Viewpoint: Engage Front-Line Employees to Drive Growth

Democratizing Corporate Innovation: Why Top Down Rarely Works

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