What Not To Leave Out Of Your Social Business Strategy

by Dion Hinchcliffe 22 Feb 2012 Blog Post

It’s been gratifying to spend the last month looking at social business success stories and documenting their progress and the lessons learned. We’ve come a long way: The maturity of the industry and our collective understanding of how to successfully transform our organizations by adapting the ideas and tools of social media to the workplace is currently at an all time high. In the last several years, many companies have begun long term strategic planning that maps out the changes they need to make in terms of structure and process to become a fully social enterprise.

In recent months, I’ve posted updated views on how to go about social business transformation using strategy as driving force to achieve cultural, organizational, and operational change. In my last post, I explored how you can employ a maturity model to baseline and guide your social business strategy and make sure your roadmap is on track. This is a considerable advance forward in our thinking. Yet, while our understanding of what it takes to be successful has become refined from less sophisticated earlier views of what it takes to deliver on enterprise social media, most of us are still learning what the key details are.

An effective strategy of any kind can’t consist of the kitchen sink. As we see large organizations try to apply social across the board, to marketing, sales, product development, workforce collaboration, and customer care, the size and scope of the strategy effort often becomes 1) large and unwieldy and 2) hard to coordinate and align across the various areas of responsibility in the organization. Business leaders very much want intellectual control over their social business evolution, but the bigger the effort is, the longer it takes and the less likely it is that they will maintain effective oversight. Centralized strategy that encompasses everything, as more and more things become social, means that the strategy is usually quite challenging to maintain, keep updated, and meaningfully communicate across the organization.

Social Business Strategy - Social Media Center of Excellent and Local/Global Programs

Instead of attempting to boil the ocean, what I’m seeing is — despite a strong and growing desire by large organizations for a global master strategy — that highly successful social business initiatives tend to focus on one particular area of the business and loosely coordinate with other areas engaged in social business to ensure consistency. Ongoing governance and oversight is frequently provided by a social media committee or social business unit/center of excellence. This cenral group also performs periodic reconciliation with the global social business strategy, typically sponsored or personally driven by a C-level leader. This means that social business strategy seems to be most effective not only at the very top of the organization, but one step down as a part of a program-level strategy portfolio. Sustained focus on a particular business function while maintaining a broader view of the whole organization seems to be the success factor for a strategy effort.

Consequently, one of the questions that seems to come up most often is this: What are the necessary moving parts in a social business strategy? What exactly needs to be included and what can be left out? While the short answer tends to be frustrating and uninformative, namely that it depends on what you’re trying to do. The longer answer, fortunately, is more interesting.

While some aspects of social business strategy are essential and can’t be omitted (examples: stakeholder requirements, IT strategy, change management plan), there’s a 2nd tier of strategy components that are less cut and dried. In general, I find that these break down to the following topics:

  • Community management. I’ve long been a advocate of having a strong, well resourced, and professional community management capability. While there are certainly some social business efforts that claim they haven’t needed them, the outcomes from case studies are clear: A social business effort will have better and faster adoption, create more business value, and have lower risk profiles if there is a strategic commitment to create a robust community management capability. Therefore, most social business strategies, global or at the business function level, should address this as a first class citizen on their roadmaps and in their business case.
  • Social platform strategy. This can be a tough topic since platform decisions tend to have the quality of a religious debate. There are usually loyal and committed camps in most organizations with a strong preference for particular social media tools and technologies. In reality, there is no one single tool that can deliver all needed social business capabilities. I’ve delved into the elements of the “social business stack” over the years, but one lesson stands out: An effective social business strategy consists of a managed portfolio of on-premise and cloud-based tools across a wide spectrum. The strategy should, when possible, account for how all this social technology should co-exist and where it should be consistent and integrated when they overlap. Functional overlap of social tools and platforms remains a major source of frustration, confusion and duplication in most organizations and needs to be dealt with pro-actively.
  • Risk management. If you’re a regulated industry or have many legal and/or corporate governance obligations, it can be very challenging to determine if your social media strategy stays within the boundaries of what’s allowable. Frankly, robust risk management efforts are a frequent reason that social business strategies slow down or stall. Once the risks are identified and articulated in writing for all to see, it can be very hard for business leaders to get past them and authorize the exposure to risk. I find that the most effective social business strategies often call this something else entirely and plan from the beginning to address risk in simple, straightforward terms without making it a highlight of the effort.
  • Business process redesign. One of the big lessons in social business is that the way the organization works on the ground must be directly addressed by the strategy effort. It goes beyond the problems that occur when we perpetuate the artificial divide between our systems of record (transaction systems) on one hand and our systems of engagement (social tools) on the other. A strategy must articular how a business is going to change the way it works in terms of its structure and process. This means re-engineering business processes from the ground up to be inherently social, open, and participative. How to determine what the changes should be and the process to go about delivering on them must be a primary focus of the strategy effort.
  • Organizational design. Recently, I’ve seen an significant increase in interest around organizational design as part of a social business strategy. If peer production, community-based processes, and the outcomes of the other power laws of networked organizations change how things get done, doesn’t that have significant impact on both the org chart and how we staff and connect together business functions? It certainly does but it’s often omitted from many strategies, sometimes because the subject is politically sensitive. In my view, org design is best split between the global strategy and the functional strategy, with a long-term plan in the former and more immediate changes in the latter. At first, this may just be the establishment of a central support unit for social business.
  • Communication plan. While change management is almost always present in any mature social business strategy, I often find the communication plans are given short shrift. Yet we clearly see in almost all the recent success stories, that extensive, pro-active communication company-wide was central to the success of their uptake, adoption, and ongoing use. Communication plans should be multi-modal, compelling, and consist of education, workshops, just-in-time training, and outreach to areas that are having challenges.

While your mileage will vary and there are certainly many other minutiae in a social business strategy that can unexpectedly contribute to a better than expected outcome, the areas above are the ones I see as high-impact yet often neglected or misunderstood. Despite a current wave of backlash against strategy efforts in some quarters, I find that companies that have cultures receptive to positive change can take great advantage of them. I’d love to hear your experiences in formulating social business strategy below in comments.

  • Nathaniel Hansen

    Great article!

    In my experience, it is vital to work closely with Compliance at every stage in a Social Business transformation. Mapping out the direction ahead of time and sharing this with the Compliance Department saves a lot of headaches. While it may seem tempting to take short cuts and move fast, the true changes in a multi-limbed corporate organism are organic and need to be taken deliberately and one stage at a time.

    • Dion Hinchcliffe

      Nathaniel, thanks. And I do agree that it’s critical to involve compliance in any social business strategy. Often, however, I find that it’s key to engage with them initially and then work under the “air cover” they provide since they won’t be blind-sided if they hear about the strategy in the interim. Then circle around and close up any loose ends and likely sticking points while there is still time. Sustained contact with legal, HR, or compliance can greatly slow things down while not greatly improving the outcome. For efficiency, well-defined intervals of collaboration with these areas seems to work best as long as they are not spaced out too far.

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