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The social solution to innovation challenges

Alexandra Samuel, VP of Social Media at Vision Critical

Business innovation depends on speed. As my colleague Ray Poynter has observed, “the number one business need … is to get good answers to decision makers quickly enough for those answers to be useful to them.”

Yet many of the business innovations that flowed from the first generation of Internet adoption have had the perverse effect of slowing business down. There was a brief, shining, productive moment between the invention of the word processor and the advent of email when we recovered all those hours we once spent with Wite-Out and carbon copies and had yet to lose those hours to email spam and mailing lists. Now, accelerated communications that came from desktop publishing have given way to arduous website overhauls; the mental freedom that came from mobile phones untethering us from our desks has turned into the mental drain of 24/7 accessibility and accountability.

Social media may provide the antidote to the brain drain.

It’s not that social media gives businesses the real-time intelligence they need to work quickly. In fact, as demonstrated by the results of a study that Emily Carr University and Vision Critical conducted earlier this year, there’s every reason to think the opposite. Our study found significant differences between social media “sharers” and social media “lurkers” — differences that could lead a company astray if it took tweets and Facebook posts as indicators of what their overall customer base is thinking.

But listening carefully to social media can transform a business in another way: by creating the pressure for the real-time intelligence and real-time responsiveness that lead to meaningful innovation. There’s nothing like a sudden uptick in social media mentions, whether positive or negative, to draw internal attention to an area of business opportunity or vulnerability. That’s paired with an external expectation that you won’t simply listen but will actually respond — whether by thanking people for their praise or addressing their complaints. In the event of a major social media crisis on the scale of the Qantas or Kenneth Cole debacles, you’ve got even more internal pressure to quickly analyze what went wrong and even more external pressure to quickly provide a meaningful response.

The pressure to learn and respond ever more quickly is not the only way that social media accelerates innovation, however. Social media can actually enable faster learning, faster thinking, and faster decision making — if companies adopt the tools, culture, and work habits that unlock the innovation-fueling potential of social media. Here are six key changes.

Get over the in-box: More and more professionals report that email has become a significant drain on their daily productivity. Add to that burden the new challenge of reading and replying to tweets, wall posts, and LinkedIn requests, and you’ve got the makings of a workforce that does nothing except read and respond to messages. While some professionals fall into that trap, more and more of us recognize that we now have to make deliberate choices about which communications actually merit attention, let alone a response. As we move beyond the “answer everything” imperative, we’re liberated not only from distraction by social media but also from the tyranny of the email inbox … freeing up your team to work on their most important priorities instead of the latest missive. To help your team make smart decisions about which messages need a reply (and how quickly), offer explicit guidelines about what kinds of messages can and can’t go unanswered.

You can act as a role model yourself by letting your immediate colleagues know that you won’t be answering every email but telling them which medium (Twitter, SMS) or subject lines will always get a same-day response.

Get over link sharing: Sharing useful content is one way a company builds collective intelligence, but in its predominant form, the emailed link, it’s also a major contributor to email overload. Get those links out of the in-box by adopting one or more social tools for circulating knowledge within your firm. Encourage your team to use Evernote for their note taking, and set up shared notebooks that team members can clip to (using Evernote’s web clipper) to build a collaborative reading file. Set up an internal blog for link sharing, and give team members a button that lets them post links to that blog with a single click. Get employees into social bookmarking, and ask them to use a common tag for links they want to share within the company; if a lot of your shared resources are visual, consider using Pinterest to share images through a pinboard.

While any of these can help free your team from the dreaded email pileup while fostering greater knowledge exchange, it can be hard to wean people off of their email-a-link habit; get them started by providing a post-by-email option, and their behavior will shift over time.

Get over life on the road
: Online networks helped birth the global economy and with it the global road warrior: the professional who spends days or weeks each month traveling not only from state to state but from country to country. Worldwide relationships may give your company the eyes and ears to gather intelligence from around the globe, but it’s hard for intelligence to turn into inspiration and innovation when your global team is depleted by life on the road.

Social networking tools like LinkedIn and Twitter have made it possible to build and deepen crucial business and client relationships without constantly getting on a plane, and social communication tools like Skype and Google+ Hangouts have made it ever easier to hold meaningful conversations online. You can combine ubiquitous presence with happily productive employees by fostering a culture that treats video chat as a legitimate way to do business and trusts employees to use their own best judgment about when they need to sit down with colleagues or clients in person instead of online.

Get over Track Changes
: Circulating typewritten documents and asking colleagues to write in the margins may have been a pre-1990s nightmare, but if you’re working with colleagues on document drafts, Word’s Track Changes feature starts to look more unwieldy than those old interoffice envelopes. In a world with Etherpad and Google Docs, there is no reason for the suffering to continue.

Write your draft in Word, but then please just post it somewhere that your colleagues can access. Without the mess and confusion of marginal notes, you’ll be able to work quicker, write better, and think smarter.

Get over your intranet: For well over a decade, companies have poured millions of dollars into building enterprise-grade intranets that are supposed to help employees collaborate more effectively but more often meet with apathy or hostility. But the very employees who eschew your internal message boards during the day go on to spend their evenings on Facebook and Twitter, and the professionals who may be invisible on your collaboration platform are logging their tasks on Basecamp. Give up the futile mission of forcing employees onto your overpriced internal platform, and look at the social tools they are actually using. Then figure out how to stitch those together into a toolkit employees will actually use.

Get over your firewall: Your enterprise IT team may be the biggest obstacle to implementing any of these innovation-enhancing changes, since many social web applications by definition live on the cloud and outside your firewall. While there are tough questions to ask about the trade-off between embracing social tools and ensuring the security of your data (and in some cases, legal constraints on those choices), companies too often sideline cloud-based applications without even asking those tough questions. Challenge your IT team to make the business case for keeping everything inside the firewall so you can weigh their concerns against the business benefits of any social tool you might embrace; compare your internal security protocols with the provisions of the social software providers you are assessing so you can determine whether external equals less secure. You may find that some social applications truly aren’t worth the risk, but the evaluation process itself may inspire your IT team to expand the social toolbox they support.

Together, these practices can help your organization turn the corner on social media as a driver of internal business innovation and help heal some of the pathologies that have inadvertently emerged from the first generation of web-based business. That’s not the end of the story, of course. As social tools get incorporated into the core of how we do business today, they will inevitably cause their own forms of pathology and sclerosis. But if we do better with social tools today, we’ll be better prepared to change and adapt tomorrow.

For more articles like this one, download the Harvard Business Review report: Putting Social Media to Work.

*Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review.

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