Is it time for a C-level social media executive?

As social media becomes more strategic to the way organizations operate, does this mean it's time to move the function to the C-suite? Does centralizing make sense, or should responsibility for it be spread across the business?
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Such a role provides the needed visibility to the rest of the C-suite that is required to drive real change. Perhaps most importantly, it would get companies to a place where they are accessing the truly transformative possibilities of social media and delivering high-impact results to the business. Every so often, ever since social media began steadily making its way into the enterprise, the question has been periodically raised about whether it has reached the level of strategic importance to warrant a dedicated C-level executive role. A new role like this was most famously suggested a couple of years ago by Harvard Business Review, and again in Fast Company last week.

More recently, companies are finding themselves surrounded with social, raising it up to an organization-wide concern. While social media often starts with the marketing or corporate communications departments, it soon spreads to sales and workforce engagement, with many crossovers in related communication, support, and collaboration functions. These typically include customer support, product management, content/document management, unified communications, intranet, and more.

The IT department typically gets involved early on as well, usually as soon as the first major initiative begins in one of these areas. But social media has never been IT's strong suit. Because of this, other areas in the business which urgently need strong technology leadership focused on their specific needs, have recently started creating their own CIO roles, such as the CIO of marketing. This is another example of the the nearly irresistible and disruptive IT mega trends of the day externally imposing organizational change that may or may not make good sense. Ignoring the trends is not the answer -- frankly, it's simply not possible. Instead, businesses are trying to find better ways to organize as technology becomes truly pervasive to our businesses, and these are necessary experiments.

So industry discussions continue about where to assign responsibility for social, given that its starting to touch most parts of our businesses now. Putting aside the specific motivations for a moment, the name of such as position is what's often debated first when the subject comes up. Various titles have been proposed, including Chief Social Officer, Chief Community Officer, Chief Collaboration Officer, and so on. All of these titles represent positions that would have responsibility for how the company engages across its customers, workers, suppliers, and business partners. The goal is ostensibly to make social communication and collaboration -- wherever is happens within and across the company -- consistent, unified, and manageable in terms of process, policy, and toolset.

The why aspect of this role is fairly straightforward: Data has recently shown that senior executives view collaboration as central to how their companies will become more competitive and successful in the near future as high-value knowledge work takes over a larger and larger percentage of the economies of developed countries. The argument goes, without someone in charge of this key function -- and communication and collaboration after all describe the core processes through business itself gets done -- it can't be improved, transformed, or optimized in a strategic way. And communication and collaboration, while they've always been social, are now becoming much more so and shifting to new technologies and modes en masse that companies now must organize around.

But enterprises have generally been slow to add new C-level roles. There usually has to be a vital reason, such as when a new function or department rises to the occasion. This happened with IT about 15 years ago, when the role of Chief Information Officer (CIO) emerged as a strong new trend in the org chart of large companies. Back then, IT had become so central to operations and service delivery to various company stakeholders, that many organizations concluded that it was strategic enough to make a top-level role. Today, most larger companies -- though certainly not all -- have a CIO.

The competition for a C-level engagement role

The reality is that companies are already considering another new C-level role and many will be focusing on that first, particularly as customer relationships become more connected, immersive, and central to how most businesses work. I'm talking here about the notional Chief Customer Officer, whose responsibility is primarily the customer experience, social and otherwise. Today, the Chief Customer Officer, though a recent novelty and not widespread yet, is one of the fastest growing new C-level roles in the enterprise. A recent exploration of the subject in Forbes notes that Forrester has uncovered at least 155 such roles now in existence in various industries.

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But the Chief Customer Officer has a few challenges as a concept. First, it's only customer facing, which is only one part of the spectrum of engagement that companies need to organize around better today. And it tends to be heavily weighted towards legacy channels of engagement, such as contact centers (phone, e-mail, text messaging), traditional media, and classical CRM platforms. Social media and customer community, when they're considered at all, are usually treated as a sideshow or topic of future investment, despite how central to the very near future of customer engagement they've become. In other words, the Chief Customer Officer has a fragmented perspective by definition and gets wrapped up mostly in how organizations functioned in the past.

If there is good case, this then is perhaps key to the argument for a C-level social media executive. First, such a role would take the entire spectrum of social business into account, providing the necessary holistic view that lets companies take full advantage of the benefits of such a unified perspective. See the figure below for McKinsey's important new findings in their latest annual Web 2.0 survey that fully networked organizations see unusually large benefits. A purely internal (worker) or external (customer) strategic role won't move the needle by itself; the real benefits have been shown to come from creating a truly connected company, as my friend and industry colleague Dave Gray would say. Only a role with such a purview could make it happen, and Chief Customer Officer isn't it. And unfortunately, even though I've held out hope in the past, it's not the CIO either, who already has many other responsibilities which can't be shed.

Most would say this argument is reasonable and now backed by increasingly good data, as far as it goes. But does such a role really have to have an primary emphasis on social? That's going to be the defining question for many enterprises as they grapple with how to organize their companies to better compete in the 21st century. Companies that can tap into their workforces better, engage with their customers in innovative new ways that create more shared value, and unleash the same changes in their supply chain, will reap significant benefits. In general, this means a focus on social and not legacy methods of engagement. Again, this is not me alone saying it, but a growing set of statistical data. And social media, as we recently pointed out in dozens of case studies in Social Business By Design, our new social business strategy book, is leading the pack when it comes to 1) how the future of communication and collaboration will look and 2) the game-changing returns it provides for companies willing to apply the ideas deep in the way they structure their operations.

Modernizing engagement means an emphasis on social

Companies are social and always have been. But we have come to realize that we've greatly underleveraged the power of human interaction now that new social technologies have arrived that dramatically amplify our efforts, reshape the very nature of work, and derive significantly higher orders of value for our businesses (see my discussion of the inherent power laws of networks for why this is.)

A Chief Social Officer would be focused on where the company is heading in terms of how it operates and has control over engagement across all constituencies and stakeholders. In other words, a pretty substantial new position. Are most companies actually ready to have a conversation about it or support this? I'd say that perhaps only a handful of companies are preparing to do this today, so no. And this means these organizations will likely suffer slower transition and adaptation to the disruptive trends taking place today. They'll be at a disadvantage to industry leaders willing to understand that such a leadership role can help them blaze the trail towards the changes needed in a way that's properly prioritized and resourced.

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For my part -- even though I think it will take a while for most companies to create it -- I think a C-level social media role will be profoundly useful, particularly because it would be focused on business and not technology. Such a role provides the needed visibility to the rest of the C-suite that is required to drive real change. Perhaps most importantly, it would get companies to a place where they are accessing the truly transformative possibilities of social media and delivering real results. This would happen much faster than if social media responsibility remains fragmented, inconsistent, and spread haphazardly across the business.

Please share your experiences in organizing your company's social media capabilities at a strategic level below. In the meantime, please consult the case studies in Social Business By Design, our new best selling strategy book that makes the case for social media as an optimal way of operating our organizations.

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