Why social tech's real value is inside the business

Most companies focus on social media, social marketing, and reputation management -- and miss potentially bigger benefits

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IBM's internally developed Connections platform includes capabilities such as text chat, video, blogging, and document sharing, and it's searched about 1 million times a week, says Luis Benitez, a social software product manager at IBM. He himself used it to find an IBM expert who, unbeknownst to Benitez, was working at the same floor of the same building. Connections is also helpful for gathering answers to RFPs in a single place rather than creating a string of unwieldy emails, he says.

Connections also saved $4 million in one year by making it easier for employees to find information, and another $100 million by allowing customers and other outsiders to get information online rather than calling IBM, Benitez says.

Software vendor SAS says its use of the SocialCast platform helps employees quickly find both answers and skilled colleagues. Some 63 percent of its 12,370 worldwide employees have begun using SocialCast since it was rolled out in January 2011, helping to "build on a culture of transparency and trust," as well as "dynamic working relationships" that led to the highest employee and customer satisfaction rates in the company's history, a spokesman says.

Egencia, the business travel arm of consumer travel site Expedia, uses Chatter to share competitive information such as pricing among its sales force, says Courtney House, the unit's senior director of sales operations. She estimates about 40 percent of its sales force is actively using Chatter, with another 30 percent "lurking" (reading but not contributing often); the remaining 30 percent is uninvolved.

Email marketing vendor StrongMail used Jive Software's social media platform to create one collaboration community for customers and a second internally to help sales reps with such tasks as finding and sharing customized sales material, says Kristin Hersant, vice president of corporate marketing.

In an online world, collaboration tends to be through text-oriented venues. But that method of communication doesn't always fit the reality of complex tasks, understanding complicated information, and working together based on a shared corporate culture. One approach to make collaboration more humanly social is through the use of virtual interaction, such as via avatars. That's the idea behind ProtonMedia's 3D virtual environment for learning and collaboration.

It isn't cheap to develop the virtual SaaS environments; pilots typically cost $30,000 to 50,000, and full production systems typically cost $200,000 to $300,000. But compare that to contract clinical researcher Pharmaceutical Product Development, which usually spends $2 million a year sending field staff to central locations for training. The $650,000 it paid for ProtonMedia's service was still a bargain, says CIO Mike Wilkinson. Even better, he notes, the levels of engagement and knowledge retention in virtual training were as good as face-to-face sessions -- and in some ways better.

Unlike traditional classroom training, the virtual classes allow a student to "monitor data, and have their instructor in another part of the world or even their line manager in their region, monitor what they're doing" and provide real-time feedback, Wilkinson says. And although many people are "pretty shy" in a real classroom, they're more likely to speak up in the virtual environment because "it's kind of not you doing it, it's your avatar. It's a safer environment."

Crowdsourcing: Getting tasks done heaper, faster, and more flexibly
Another area where social technology has proven value is in crowdsourcing, a technology often associated with social media and gathering content for use in blogs, videos, and podcasts. But those are hardly the only areas where crowdsourcing can be applied.

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