Within five years, I predict, the word social will seem as cliché as synergy feels now. Social connection will be like a dial tone, something we once expected to hear and now don’t bother listening for as we dial. What it represents is just there.
Between now and then, though, we have some growing up to do. We must get comfortable in our social shoes. Overcome personal and professional discomfort with relying on relationships to get work done. And do that publicly, as an intentional mindful function rather than something we’ve always done without notice or acknowledgment.
It’s not as though relying on relationships is new. People have worked together, learned together, and made buying decisions together for centuries. What makes social the “it” topic today is that light mobile tools and vast digital networks extend our access and conversations with all our connections–in our workplaces, our communities, and online. We can stoke a conversation’s fire from the subway, 36,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, or even during a workout at the gym… And unlike anytime before, the people we converse with need not be beside us or even awake.
Social tools allow us to reach across time and space to solve complex problems and make informed decisions in ways we couldn’t dream of years ago. By connecting those who share interests, no matter their location or time zone, people will transform the workplace into an environment where being social is as natural as it is powerful.
Organizations are beginning to realize that by rewiring their workforce to actively build strong relationships and reach out to colleagues as a normal course of business, they ultimately produce a better product to their customer. Social comes full circle as both an internal practice and an external revenue generator. As Alistair Rennie, General Manager of Collaborative Solutions at IBM said at an event on reinventing relationships, “How you wire your own business has a direct impact on how you impact customers. Social is not a set of technologies. It’s a highly connected business transformation with people at its core.”
Three areas will move this conversation toward its inevitable ubiquity: social business, social learning, and social commerce. Each moves us a step closer to the day when these topics return to business, learning, and commerce because social just is.
Sabre Holdings, the company that owns Travelocity and several other global travel reservation systems, created internal online community–SabreTown–“to provide an internal tool for professional networking so that employees could connect quickly and easily,” says Erik Johnson, general manager of the software underpinning SabreTown. At the time the networking tool was created, Sabre Holdings had grown from a small U.S. operation into one with 10,000 employees in 59 countries, many telecommuting and beginning to feel disconnected from colleagues and information.
To use SabreTown, employees complete a profile of their interests and expertise. When someone posts a question to an online bulletin board, the system’s predictive modeling software automatically sends it to the 15 people whose expertise is most relevant to the question. The more people who complete profiles and the more questions that are asked and answered, the better the inference engine can assign questions appropriately. “You have a greater chance of getting a useful answer if your question is directed not just to the people you already know, but to the people who have the most relevant knowledge,” explains Johnson.
SabreTown is credited with $500,000 in direct savings the first year. Based on anecdotal results, that figure doesn’t come close to representing the total savings. Johnson attributes the site’s success partly to the fact that management ceded control over its use to line employees. He says, “A big benefit for us is that SabreTown is effectively creating a massive knowledge base that employees willingly populate with their own information.”
Classic business models presume that relevant information is created and shared either through management or training. But classic isn’t enough: There’s too much to know and make sense of, too little time to gain perspective, and information changes too fast to dispense. A virtual water cooler becomes a gathering place to share ideas and ask questions beyond the limits of formal organizations, company meetings, or classrooms.
When Faith LeGendre, senior global consultant for customer advocacy in Cisco’s collaboration software group, was a new employee, working away from headquarters, she sought a seasoned employee to mentor her. Within seconds of making her request on Cisco’s internal microsharing system, a woman in a completely different area responded. They have shared and learned together ever since. In other companies, LeGendre had spent hours searching through intranets and distant servers to learn about her employer, her role, and how things really worked. Now, by asking others for guidance via microsharing, she not only receives the exact information she needs, but it often comes with extra insights. For example, someone might respond, “Don’t forget 2 fill out section C way at bottom or it will get rejected in the automatic system.” She constantly learns from colleagues around the globe and saves time while increasing her productivity and accuracy.
Burt Kaliski, director of EMC’s Innovation Network, and his team started planning for the company’s annual Innovation Conference by brainstorming ideas about the focus of the event on EMC’s internal social network EMC|ONE. As that was settled, the team moved on to posting and refining event details. Then they launched their innovation submission process on EMC|ONE and received more than 900 submissions from passionate EMC employees all over the world who felt so comfortable in the community that they were even eager to post their submissions on the site for others to review, comment on, and provide suggestions.
Instead of asking for periodic progress reports, Claudia Miro, when she led client services at a midsize coaching and consulting firm, used social tools to keep tabs on her virtual workforce spread throughout North America. They relied on short exchanges to share, collaborate, and communicate about the work they were doing with clients. It was not unusual for a consultant to get a quick microburst from Miro, broadcast to all the consultants, asking for a report on who they met, how much time they spent, and what were the outcomes. The organization began using social tools as an internal document repository for operations; yet over time, it grew to become a dynamic communications tool across their internal and external partners. By capturing learning in the moment, the organization could quickly leverage the collective knowledge of its consultants and provide more value and collective intelligence, to the organizations it served.
Most of what we learn at work and elsewhere comes from engaging in networks where people co-create, collaborate, and share knowledge, fully participating and actively engaging, driving, and guiding their learning through whatever topics will help them improve. Training often gives people solutions to problems already solved. Collaboration addresses challenges no one has overcome before. Social learning makes that immediate, enabling people to easily interact with those with whom they share a workplace, a passion, a curiosity, a skill, or a need.
Equator Estate Coffee & Teas sells limited-batch coffees and rare tea on Facebook not available on its web site. Using conversation commerce tools from Milyoni that engage fans in a social context, Equator Estates make it easy for their customers to share information about their purchases with friends, and the retailer’s fans. Their website felt too cumbersome to constantly update with high-end offerings available in limited quantities, says Helen Russell, the company’s CEO and co-founder. “Being a small company it would be too costly and time-consuming to regularly add and remove those coffees from our web site,” she says. “With Facebook, those updates are instant.” And they are in the flow of where their customers look each day.
“The more ways we enable shoppers to shop, the better,” says Kevin Ranford, director of web marketing at 1-800-Flowers. They became the first retailer to launch a store on Facebook and are already on the second version of its Facebook store.
“Our research tells us that consumers are making a dramatic shift in shopping habits–value, versatility, and convenience are more important now than ever, and people are buying to satisfy needs over wants, though they’re still interested in unique offering,” said a senior executive at Brown Shoe. “We also learned from our consumers that it is an emotionally transformative moment when they find the right pair of shoes at the right price that are convenient to obtain and offer something unique like a great brand or new fashion trend.”
The Nielsen Global Online Consumer Survey points to that same trend. 90% of consumers surveyed noted that they trust recommendations from people they know, and 70% trusted consumer opinions posted online even from people they didn’t know. Some things in retail never change. The right product, the right price at the right place. When people find that product, at that price, having the means and opportunity to share that information moves others to take action too.
Peter Drucker once said that “the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.” Social connections strengthen business because people learn from one another, and then enable customers–both those within their workforce and those they serve–to make broadminded, fluid, well-informed decisions for themselves. They leave a digital audit trail, documenting our journey–often an unfolding story–leaving a path for others to follow and from which to learn. I look forward to the day when that’s no longer considered social as much as just how we work.
Originally published on Fast Company’s expert contributor community.
Marcia Conner works with senior leaders putting collaborative technology to work. She is a member of the Telefónica Distributive Council and is working on a book about ingenuity to foster fast organizational change. For more information, follow her at twitter.com/marciamarcia and visit www.marciaconner.com.
[Photo credit: Skydiving_404, Philip Leara]