CIOs getting serious about social networking

Most IT directors were skeptical of social networking at first. But that's now changing, says the Corporate IT Forum's Ollie Ross.

Commentary--Let's face it, IT directors are always going to be cautious of investing in technologies that they consider to be fashionable, rather than the ones they can prove make a difference to the bottom line - and who can blame them?

CIOs must consider many different factors when rolling out a new technology and they have to check things rigorously and be 100 per cent sure of the value.

Social networking is no different. Facebook is now five years old and over those five years, IT chiefs within the Corporate IT Forum have been carefully watching it - and the social networking phenomena more broadly - grow up and mature.

They've been trying to understand the business benefits - as well as the risks - and have been keeping a close eye on the cultural changes that have been taking place in wider society and within their organizations.

And now it seems they've reached a decision.

Around a year ago it was common for IT chiefs within the Corporate IT Forum to put blanket blocks on staff accessing social network sites. Broadly, social networking was considered a distraction or fad that would soon move on - not any more.

This month, the Forum recently held a workshop session in which IT chiefs from more than 30 large businesses all considered the benefits and risks of social networking. Without exception, all of the businesses were serious about understanding more about the technology. And not just about whether their peers were allowing access to such sites (or not) but rather why and how other businesses were actively adopting social networking tools.

CIOs now see that such networks are here to stay. What had led to this shift?

As with any technology, there are both push and pull factors to its adoption. IT chiefs realize that large proportions of their younger members of staff - the so-called Gen Y - consider messaging over Facebook to be as natural as picking up the phone.

And so IT leaders have realized that social networking is an important factor in attracting and retaining the best talent.

However, mostly they're interested because they've recognized there could be major benefits.

For example, the CIO of one large company taking part in the event pointed to the example of a high street name that had successfully set up a Facebook page to generate a buzz around the launch of a new consumer product - with great results. The campaign led to Facebookers independently setting up their own groups around the product and recruiting their friends into the campaign. That's priceless PR.

Another IT chief described how his company had developed their own version of microblogging site Twitter to communicate corporate information inside the business and to encourage staff to share ideas.

IT directors can really see the benefits of social networking for internal collaboration. They understand how important it is to generate new ideas between different virtual communities and many see social networks as perfect places for this to happen.

Social networking is becoming embedded into recruitment and retention processes too. An HR director taking part in the workshop explained how his company had created a Facebook page to attract graduates. The mini-site allowed existing members of staff to talk to candidates and gave HR the chance to check out the online profile of candidates applying for a job.

After they were hired, the new starters were able to help and support each other via an internal social networking site.

These examples all show how embedded social networking is becoming in businesses. But of course, with benefits come risks.

CEOs are understandably concerned about the reputational impacts of staff using and sometimes misusing social networking sites. They've read the national newspaper headlines about staff making unfortunate comments about customers on Facebook groups and when that happens, the CIO, HR director and head of PR all get the call to sort it out.

Executives have also realized there is practically nothing they can do to control a member of staff setting up a networking group about where they work, in their own time on their own computer.

Companies understand that rules and regulations are pretty powerless - here, education and guidance are important.

So are the risks worth taking? Many businesses think so. The first step is to understand that social networks are here to stay - and then to understand where the challenges lie, what the opportunities are, and what checks and balances must be put in place to ensure risks are reduced and benefits are realized.

We all know it's going to be the companies with the new ideas and innovations that are going to prosper in a recession. Many business chiefs now suspect that social networks are important to make these ideas flourish.

Ollie Ross is head of research at the Corporate IT Forum. Her article was originally posted on