A Deeper Look at Social Business Part I

an interview with

Here is the first part of my interview with Ethan McCarty IBM’s Senior Manager of Digital and Social Strategy.  Its hard not to be impressed with IBM’s approach to social, elevating the discussion from a “nice to have” media component to a “must have” means of doing business.


Drew: Most businesses are trying to get their mind’s wrapped around social media, and you folks are now talking about social business. What’s the difference between those two terms?

Ethan: I think there’s a variety of interpretations for these terms : social media and social business. Social media is typically about mediated experiences with content, and sometimes it’s about dis-inter-mediating the experience. Social media is about media and people, which is one dimension of the overall world of business. With social business you start to look at the way people are interacting in digital experiences and how you can apply the insights derived from all the data and apply them to business processes that may not necessarily be about dissemination of information.

Drew: Tell me about the various dimensions of Social Business, and how companies can deploy it.

Ethan: Social business is about looking at  business processes differently;  from how you are listening to your customers, to how you are engaging with a wide-variety of constituencies. It could be your employees, or it could be potential investors; it could be current investors; it could be prospects for your business.

One of the main dimensions of social business is about managing relationships through these new business processes. Social media is more about disseminating information in new ways, using people as the medium rather than broadcast systems as the medium.  In social business you might be managing community relationships or relationships with individuals; you might be identifying and activating experts or rewarding and recognizing certain kinds of behaviors. And then of course another really important dimension of social business is collaboration. I think that is beyond the thought of social media because it’s not always about creating an information document.  It could be things like collaborative editing, but it could also be file sharing or expertise location.

There are things in the realm of social business that are more about working to improve the efficiency of teams as opposed to just getting a message out there, which I think a lot of the initial social media really were about. Social business is sort of a super-set of social media. Social media is one component of social business.

Drew: Is social business a mind set or a skill set? Or is it a product?

Ethan: All of the above. There are certainly products that enhance an organization’s ability to become a social business. For example, IBM offers a platform of products that enable social business – wikis, blogs, communities, instant messaging, etc. Beyond these products, and really in order to implement and adopt them successfully, social business has to be move than just a mindset, it has to be an organization’s cultural priority. Leaders have to be committed to making significant business process changes in order to actually make work getting done easier and more efficient. We have at IBM a social business management council that  includes some very high-ranking IBM executives, IBMers in the CIO office, in HR, etc., [and] we perform risk analyses and opportunities analyses to help us establish new modes of work. One of the efforts that I’m leading with an IBM HR leader is to look at how we’re going to formalize these new modes of work into our skills at IBM. Social business at IBM is a priority, we’re constantly fine tuning our processes to better serve our customers, partners and ourselves.

Social business is a pretty broad thing, and it includes skills that aren’t necessarily obvious to every employee.  Also there’s a broad area of policy development that we, as an industry, need to do. If you think about how many relationships between an enterprise’s employee base and those with whom they are supposed to be working have been mediated and controlled by processes that are not necessarily enabled by the most contemporary social business approaches, you’ll see the world has a lot of work to do in this area. That is, to me, very promising.

Drew: How is Social Business being integrated into IBM’s business model?

Ethan: There are a couple major concepts that we’re currently working on. One is acknowledging that social, digital activity is moving from the periphery to the center of business. And to me, that’s a big part of what social business is. It’s the transition of all the interesting and fun social activity that’s taken place in the commercial domain is becoming increasingly applicable to enterprises, and how enterprises get work done; how enterprises manage relationships with their clients; how employees work together. That’s a significant change in business.  Social, digital activity and experiences are no longer a frivolous, nebbishy thing for teenagers and college students. Enterprises are realizing the power of these tools to transform there business.

IBM’s a great example of this social business transformation; a lot of our work is done using digital, collaborative means. Consider this, I’ve got eight people on my core team, and, not one of us lives in the same city, and many of us are in different time zones.  I work with IBMers in Australia and California and Michigan and all around the Tri-State area, and we’re doing all kinds of great work together, every day. It’s asynchronous; it’s collaborative. The way we work together is digital and a lot of it this work and collaboration is not happening over email.  Email is a very limited tool, and in some ways completely antisocial.  It does a lot of things to silo the work efforts. Instead of email, we’re using social tools – file sharing, video conferencing, wikis, communities, instant messaging, etc – to get our jobs done.

FYI, you can follow Ethan on Twitter @ethanmcc.

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