The Leader of the Social Business Pack

There’s no denying that social media is migrating from the consumer realm to the business arena. What can still be debated is how quickly this technology is making its way into the core of the enterprise, and becoming something more than marketing and sales tools.

Some people — primarily analysts, vendors and media types — contend social media already has a prominent place within the core of business enterprises. They are even using the term “social business” to describe the use of this technology in support of backend business processes.

The term is catchy, and it’s probably destined to become the new buzzword for the use of social media in the business world. I would argue, however, that we’re still at a point when the actual practice of social business is not commensurate with the hype.

Social Media Can Be a Distraction

I say this because I still see a lot of evidence that both vendors and users are struggling to define exactly how social media can be an effective tool for improving business processes. If not used properly, social media could become just another toy for the workforce segment that likes experimenting with new technology, and a major distraction for the segment that doesn’t.

Most IT managers intuitively know this, which is why many of them are taking a cautious approach to applying social media within the enterprise. Vendors must know this as well, but their job is to sell new technology, so they are bit more zealous about trumpeting social media’s potential for enhancing business operations.

As I survey the social media landscape, I see one vendor that appears to have a handle on what it will take to make social business a reality for the average enterprise. That vendor is IBM.

Here, in my opinion, is where IBM differs from most other vendors touting the promise of social business: IBM realizes that social media is merely a potential tool for improving business processes; it is not a business application in itself.

A Better Collaboration Platform

That fact is reflected in IBM’s social media group being part of its collaboration business unit, the same unit that manages it Lotus product line. IBM’s primary social software product suite was built on the Lotus platform, and was originally called “Lotus Connections.” This past April, it was rechristened “IBM Connections.”

This product is rooted in the Lotus platform because IBM sees social media as a means of providing options for better, deeper, faster collaboration. In essence, that’s what social media is all about — making it easier for people to connect and communicate. It’s up to users, with the help of vendors, to figure how this new form of communications technology can improve the way they live and work.

IBM has been working on this concept of social business longer than most vendors, partly because a good percentage of its 400,000 employees started experimenting with social media without prompting from their bosses.

IBM Employees Set an Example

In the spring of 2009, I met Sandy Carter, an IBM VP who was one of the early users of Twitter. She was among the first to open my eyes about the potential business value of social media.

At the time, 3,500 people were following Carter on Twitter, and she related the story of how a customer’s comment about an item she posted on a blog opened a dialogue that ultimately resulted in IBM closing a large deal.

Today, Carter has nearly 11,000 Twitter followers, and she’s still blogging. Her colleagues in IBM’s collaboration group have used her and numerous other IBMers as examples of what users want to see in social business platforms.

To that end, the IBM Connections suite includes tools for creating blogs, wikis, and online forums, and for bookmarking your favorite sites.

Social Media and Specific Business Processes

This week, IBM took another step that sets it apart from other vendors in social media space. It introduced a capability for using social media to help with a specific business process.

In this case, IBM is teaming with a supplier of e-security and compliance applications on a solution that will allow for monitoring, tracking and connecting data flowing through social media channels so that data can be, when necessary, incorporated in compliance reports.

This is a clear sign that IBM is actually looking to use social media to solve business problems instead of simply looking to sell users on new tools that they may or may not use.

That doesn’t mean IBM doesn’t still have work to do when it comes to social media. Like most vendors that sell primarily to businesses, IBM still seems to have trouble developing a coherent story around its social media offerings.

In Need of a Marketing Message

In announcing its regulatory compliance offering, Alistair Rennie, IBM’s general manager of collaboration solutions, spoke a lot about social media’s potential as a tool for real business transformation, but he never really offered any specifics on how social media can transform a business.

I found that a bit ironic, given my experience with Sandy Carter, as well as my recent reading of an IDC report with several case studies of IBM employees doing interesting things with social media. Maybe someone within IBM should hand that report to the marketing department.

Despite its struggles with clearly articulating its social media message, IBM, at this moment, still seems to be doing more than most vendors to create a logical path for making social media a core business tool.

That explains why IDC recently ranked IBM the top revenue producer among social software platform vendors for the second consecutive year.

E-Commerce Times columnist Sidney Hill has been writing about business and technology trends for more than two decades. In addition to his work as a freelance journalist, he operates an independent marketing communications consulting firm. You can connect with Hill through his website.

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