Commentary - Everyone knows that an email system lets the newest employee, regardless of where he or she falls on the org chart, send a message directly to the CEO. That's been true from networking's earliest days, and it's the most obvious example of how new technology can "flatten" an organization.
But a new generation of enterprise software tools called "social media technologies" -- you know them already from their civilian counterparts like Facebook and Twitter -- are flattening and transforming organizations in ways even more profound than email. In my experience, I have seen them not only flattening the organization, but also connecting previously unconnected people and departments, redistributing knowledge, and bringing to companies a kind of cohesion that is both empowering and powerful.
After realizing our need for leveraging our employees all over the world, our company, CIBER, recently decided upon the "tibbr" social media product from TIBCO. Our team took quickly to the connectivity afforded by a social business tool which gave them the ability to follow not only people, but also "events or topics," such as those for human resources and supply chain management. The information being pushed to their "feed" can be from an accounting program as easily as it can be from the person in the cubicle next door.
When I look out now at companies like ours that use enterprise collaboration tools, here are the five benefits I feel are the most significant:
1) Breaking down silos. Businesses today are far-flung operations, with offices in dozens of cities, both in America and abroad. Employees are highly trained and each office knows how to do its job very well. But they previously had no way of knowing what other people in other parts of the company were doing. And so it was common for one office, when confronted with a new customer request, to re-invent the wheel, rather than take advantage of work already done elsewhere in the company.
That is changing; with social media, everyone knows what everyone else is up to. The benefits are obvious; by leveraging work done in another office, one practice can satisfy a customer request much more quickly than if they had started from scratch. As a result, large companies can start to act like the billion dollar companies they are, and not a collection of dozens of independent offices.
2) Employees can find in-house experts without knowing about them in advance. It's now common for employees, when faced with a new project, to start by using the "birds of a feather" capability of social media software to find people who have dealt with the same challenge. Here is one of the countless examples from our offices: An employee in Denmark posted that she had to give a presentation on "mobility." She wanted to use a demo but didn’t have the time and resources to build one. Thanks to social media, she was hooked up with half-a-dozen demo options that already existed, as well as other in-house experts, in just a day or two.
3) Uniformity happens. While companies certainly want their employees to bring their individual skills and talents to bear when they do their job, they also want them to be operating from the same playbook, using the same best practices and thereby giving their customers a consistent level of service. At a more prosaic level, they want to be sure everyone on their team is using the same software in the same computing environment. Social media helps with both.
4) Rock stars can get the global recognition they deserve. Thanks to social media, many companies have made the happy discovery that nearly every office has someone who is strikingly good at one particular job. With social media, experts in particular niches can let the entire enterprise know what they can do. One of the remarkable things about social media is the extent to which people demonstrate an eagerness to help out their colleagues, even those they have never met in an office thousands of miles away.
5) Social media is the best early warning system a company can have. Everyone in senior management at nearly every company spends time worrying about the competition – it can even keep them up at night. I certainly know who my traditional competitors are, but I worry even more about upstarts with entirely new ways of serving our market space. Many of these new companies fly beneath the radar of even the big and expensive analyst companies whose job it is to track the competitive landscape.
Social media puts a thousand set of eyes on the problem. Now, it’s not just a few folks from HQ who are worrying about potential disruptors. Everyone in the field is too, and they are quick to alert us to anything and everything they see that they think we should know about. We still worry, of course. But at least now we can sleep a little easier knowing the whole company is engaged in the effort, rather one or two folks from top management.
A final note: I am not any sort of gear-head early adopter, and don't think I ever use technology for its own sake. But the benefits offered by social media are impossible to ignore. And the choice is stark: Either dismiss it and become irrelevant, or embrace it and benefit from the remarkable transformations it makes possible.
Jon Scarpelli is Vice President of Technology for CIBER Inc.