The phrase “social enterprise” is actually one of several terms used to describe organizations that are embracing consumer-based social media tools. Other terms include “social business” and “Enterprise 2.0,” but all mean the same thing: These are companies that use Facebook, Twitter, messaging, collaboration tools, video-sharing platforms, and other consumer-based social tools to benefit key departments, critical functions, and ultimately, the entire business.
It’s important to point out that few, if any, businesses have become fully social. The social enterprise is more a destination, with different companies falling somewhere on a “becoming social” spectrum. Some have not embraced it at all; others have taken small initial steps—typically in marketing or public communications with a Facebook page or Twitter feed. Others are integrating social for more robust applications, such as project management. A few are even working to use social media to change the way the entire organization works—to eliminate silos, break down hierarchies, link internal and external stakeholders together, and empower employees.
The Rise of the Social Enterprise
The development of social media tools and platforms, as well as the rising interest among businesses in introducing them, has been building for several years. The very late 1990s and early 2000s saw the beginning of the consumerization of IT. Employees began using online conversational media, such as blogs and instant messaging (IM), and eventually brought their personal digital devices to the workplace to get around the company’s centralized IT and bypass internal bottlenecks. It soon became clear that these free, personal, under-the-radar social tools were achieving a lot of the communication and knowledge-sharing goals better than some of the existing big, expensive, and unwieldy knowledge management and enterprise software programs.
A few prescient observers of the internet, Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, noticed these emerging changes and in 2000 wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, a seminal book on how the internet was going to change business (amazon.com/Cluetrain-Manifesto-Christopher-Locke/dp/0273650238). And some businesses did begin paying attention.
Why Social Matters
What is driving organizations to embrace the new digital social tools? The reasons have evolved over time. Initially, in the early and mid-2000s, what was then called “Web 2.0” meant primarily blogs and bloggers. These blogging pioneers of the user-input web engaged in new ways of communicating and sharing information online, which embodied certain values. The key values were transparency, that the group knows more than any individual, and that a conversation is the best way to create new knowledge and arrive at truth.
Web 2.0 also began making it easier for customers to connect with each other and get their voices heard by a much larger group, making them a much more potent force. This shifted the power balance between customer and company. When customer service was lacking, a product failed, or there was some other poor performance, people now had a method to voice their complaint to tens or hundreds of thousands of others. Perhaps the most famous of these dissatisfied customer shots heard round the web was from blogger Jeff Jarvis, who posted a “Dell lies. Dell sucks” entry on his blog in 2005 after having a terrible customer experience with the company (buzzmachine.com/2005/06/21). This post from Jarvis, who today is a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, resonated strongly with others around the web and eventually made its way directly to Dell. (Ironically, or perhaps not, today Dell is considered a leader in the social enterprise movement.)
Marketers have always known that word of mouth—both positive and negative—is more influential than any internally generated marketing or promotion. They soon realized that social media was something that they needed to attend to—and quickly.
The first efforts by companies to leverage social media were nearly all externally focused and directed to the customer. Early initiatives were driven by marketing and public relations. Some firms began setting up platforms and using web tools to carefully listen—and sometimes respond—to the countless conversations happening all over the new socially enabled web. As new social networks appeared on the scene—most notably Facebook after it expanded its user base beyond colleges and universities in 2006—a certain number of farsighted companies became more engaged with customers and potential customers on social media. (This author wrote The Art of Strategic Listening in 2008 to provide companies with reasons, strategies, sources, and ethical guidelines for engaging in online listening.)
Eventually, large media-monitoring and public relations organizations such as Edelman and others introduced their own online research tools and platforms, spurring more activity among companies in the process and creating more “social listening” products and dashboards for generating more interest. Around this time, companies began doing more than listening; they started their own blogs to show that they were on board with the new philosophy of openness, sharing, and conversation. Certain high-profile blogging CEOs paved new ground in what kind of information they were willing to share with the public and even responded to comments, suggestions, and complaints from those who read their blogs.