Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | July 10, 2011

How Can IT Folks Support Social Media Use?

How to use social media in effective support of a company’s strategic goals and objectives – is a question that many companies struggle to address.  I find that the answer to this, is in many ways, similar to the one I have been working on, for some time, namely, how do IT folks facilitate use of innovation tools? The essence for both questions is – when the tools and applications in question are decentralized, easy to acquire and use, and not given to corporate control, how can the IT department have an effective role?

The challenges to effective use of social medial are many, among them: (1) not being able to identify the right areas/departments to target, (2) getting stuck with social media tools and applications that are technically slick and state of the art, but which no one uses, (3) letting a thousand flowers bloom and ending up with a plethora of social media platforms that do not talk to one another and hence cannot be used for decision support, and (4) creating an IT security hole in the corporate IT infrastructure in the zeal to use social media. Each of these, alone, can derail a company’s efforts to gainfully use social media. Addressing them requires the deliberate and combined efforts of those who are enthusiastic about applying social media to their work processes (i.e. functional managers from marketing, innovation, customer service and other departments), of those whose brief it will ultimately be to provide a technically secure and sustainable platform for the applications (i.e. the IT department), and of those who will provide the financial and human wherewithal to initiate and see these projects through (i.e. the executive management). The presence of each of these three components is important, and non-automatic. We talk about the role of the IT department.

1. Never say “never”: The first instinct that IT departments have when confronted with use of an application that they did not recommend or do not support is – “cannot be”. Such a reaction is not completely out of line because concerns of security, compatibility and standardization are and should be foremost for enterprise systems, database and networks, i.e. the heavy duty systems and applications on which the firm runs. Social media applications, however, do not fall among these. By nature they are flexible applications, given to substantial structuration and configuration by the user. Additionally, ideas for which particular type of social media application should be used and how it should be applied to company processes, come from the trenches and frontlines in sales, R&D and other functions. The first step for the IT department is therefore to listen to these ideas with full consideration.

2. Understand technologies and processes: Eventually it is the IT department that will be called upon to provide the technical platform, scalability and integration for any social media application that a function might want to adopt. More often than not however, that function does not fully understand how such an application might be fully utilized or what the technical implications of its adoption and use might be. In order to make any sort of useful contribution here, the IT department should understand the plethora of social media applications out there and their possible application to the firm’s processes. Equally important, it should be familiar with the workflows and critical processes of each department. And most important, IT folks should be able to put together and assimilate such technical and process understanding to effectively educate and inform functional users and managers about potential social media tools. Unfortunately, the reality is that many IT departments just do not get it. A comment from a student in my EMBA class, “I remember the Head of IT mentioning that he did not “get” Facebook and how it’s used, why people use it, what the purpose is, etc.”

3. Apply gentle and firm persuasion: Based on the above, the IT department may need to influence the functions in their design and choice of specific social medial tools. Frontline managers who come up with ideas about social media applications are usually technically savvy, willing to experiment and know their processes well. Any potentially helpful and influential role that the IT department hopes to play, in guiding and directing social media adoption will therefore need to be based on solid technical and business knowledge, high credibility with the functions, and good working relationships with front line functional managers.

4. Direct, support and encourage use: Once a decision has been made to adopt a particular application, prompt and skillful technical support for it should be forthcoming from the IT department. IT folks should also encourage use by publicizing the system and its benefits. They should make users aware of possible security risks, since ideas based on social networking applications tend to put employee information and possibly important company information “out there” among customers and competitors. Develop, for instance a how to guide that includes a list of potential risks from social media and ways to mitigate them. Create a list of “things to keep in mind” when using social media for specific activities. Easier said than done. In my experience, a comment from a graduate student, a middle level executive in an automotive firm, “The older IT guys were not chatty types to start with. Call for help – no way. The newer IT guys a little more chatty, but too preoccupied with their cool tools.”

 

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