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The Anti-Social Business

Cross-posted from the IBM Center for the Business of Government, co-authored with Dan Chenok.

The newest business term making the rounds is “social business.” Of course, we hesitate to say “newest,” as there may be a new term by the time this blog is posted (this morning, in fact, we saw a reference to something called “knowledge media”). The idea is that social media tools, both inside and outside the firewall, can help transform a business or agency into one that is more connected to employees, citizens, partners, and so on. Social tools present an unprecedented opportunity for conversation and knowledge flows to become much more useful to the organization. The focus here is not on the tools, but on the changes that can be realized if the organization is “listening” with a desire to change.

Unfortunately, the focus on .listening’ is often missing from Agency social media initiatives. Too often, the projects bring at best a tenuous connection to their core business. Flailing about with blogs and tweets, with no connection to how they conduct business. With all the promise of a Social Business enabled by modern interaction protocols and technologies – these firms and agencies strike us at the risk of becoming anti-social.

Private sector

For the private sector, this often amounts to subordinating social media programs to the marketing department. While seemingly a good tool for this purpose, using these channels solely to bleat the corporate message comes across as inauthentic, and can actually damage the brand. The first spam email was sent in 1994 by a law firm called Canter and Seigel. This email advertised their services, repeatedly, for obtaining a Green Card across several Usenet sites. Today, few reputable firms would take this approach to an email marketing campaign – preferring to target to micro-segments of their market, in order to avoid being labeled as a “spammer.” Someday soon, private firms will learn that using public social media streams only to talk at a broad market can be as damaging to their brand. Private firms are now learning to consider authentic engagement, for example, using social media as way to turn help desk issues into productive conversations.

The analyst firms agree that social business is just getting underway:

  • The social business model is changing the way companies generate and conduct business online, and IDC believes that this model will have long-lasting impact – IDC
  • Social technologies will drive the next wave of Business Process Modeling suites – Forrester
  • By 2015, 40% of large enterprises will have a corporate .Facebook’ for circulating both business and personal data – Gartner

Public sector

For the public sector, successes such as Intellipedia are touted as proof that social media can work in the most rarefied agencies. However, the failure of these programs to lead to business model innovation threatens the continued funding of these initiatives.

Without a value proposition that connects to the mission, agencies will have a hard time justifying continued investment – small as it may be – in social media engagement. Just as with the private sector, it is no longer enough to dip a toe into social media as a marginalized program – rather, these tools need to be treated as any other tool: used to engage citizens and employees, while tracking and reporting on the success of these engagements against agency goals and vision.

Note we don’t say here that we track to the existing business model or processes, precisely because social media holds the promise of changing one’s business model or existing processes to realize better the agency goals and vision. For an example, Intellipedia is now part of an initiative that may lead to changes in the intelligence production cycle; an exciting development that could lead to interagency coordination on a grander scale than currently imagined. This disconnect between “real work” and social media is due to a failure to imagine and measure. Some things to consider:

Engaging citizens through social media should begin with a tool-agnostic assessment of the goal: Are you open to transforming the citizen experience? Are you open to changing internal methods if your employees’ voice makes the case? If so, the metrics you collect should seed conversations across the leadership about trends and narratives that suggest an opportunity to question and re-design internal programs for engagement. Metrics can include real-time trend analysis, classification and response prioritization – to help the agency respond to content posted across the internet and discussed using social media.

Frame the objectives

There are process metrics that help reflect whether the specific social media effort is becoming part of the conversation – our colleague Gadi Ben-Yahudi has pulled together an excellent list of specific process metrics for microblogs, ideation platforms, blogs, etc.

However, outcome metrics should be aligned with and tied to specific program objectives that themselves serve to realize the agency mission and vision. In other words, consider the metrics that will be developed to demonstrate success for the objective – as you write the objective itself. These objectives, in turn, should follow the classic SMART model; ensure they are

  • Specific – remove vague language, so the objective stands on its own and cannot be misunderstood
  • Measurable – consider ways to demonstrate success in a way that will resonate and not be challenged
  • Attainable – the rational test, are you setting an objective that is reasonable?
  • Relevant – serves the agency mission and advances the vision
  • Time-Bound – not open-ended, but has a clear date for review. This enforces “gate reviews” so the initiative can be re-directed or canceled if objectives are not being met.

Develop the metrics – an example

One example of an objective to metric to measure flow may go something like this:

Objective. An agency needs to ensure it is being proactive in addressing employee concerns arising from reorganization or integration (examples may include DHS or MDA). This objective supports the Agency vision that the re-organization supports an Executive vision of a more effective and efficient response to specific policy needs.

Metric. The metric may use social network analysis (SNA) to assess the cohesion and density of existing professional networks among the new workforce. Run an analysis prior to implementing internal social media, and then compare subsequent analyses against this baseline, allowing for employee attrition and new hires. As social network density and cohesion is correlated with trusted information flows across the network, these measures would support the objective’s intent.

Without a clear tie to the agency mission, without providing for the opportunity to realize innovations for your business model arising from these increased interactions – social media efforts in a vacuum show you to be, ironically enough, an “anti-social business”.

John BordeauxDr. Bordeaux is an active member of the Federal KM Working Group, Senior Advisor to the O’Reilly Gov 2.0 Summit and Expo series, a peer reviewer for the Journal of Knowledge Management (Emerald publishing), and an accredited practitioner in the Cognitive Edge methods. Bordeaux received his Ph.D. in Public Policy from the School of Public Policy at George Mason University and earned an M.S. in Information Systems from the School of Information Technology and Engineering also at George Mason University, preceded by a B.S. in Governmental Administration from Christopher Newport University. For IBM, John provides consulting services in the areas of knowledge management, social media strategies, enterprise integration and data governance.

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