The consumerization of information technology (IT) in business isn't stopping with the wholesale invasion of consumer-centric gadgets such as smartphones and tablets. Just as consumers are flocking to social media channels to share and engage with their friends and family, companies of all sizes are adopting similar tools to promote knowledge-sharing among employees.
IT research firm Gartner predicts that by 2014, 20 percent of employees will use social networks as their business communications' hub. Successful businesses are now behind the curve if they aren't implementing social software.
But social software tools alone aren't enough. And it's about more than internal chit-chat and following what people are saying about your company, Maria Ogneva, head of community for Yammer, a developer of enterprise social networking tools, told BusinessNewsDaily.
An evolving ecosystem
Social is an evolving ecosystem and it can be a full-time job just trying keep up with the new developments and permutations.
"In the past, organizations supported collaboration through email and highly structured applications," said Monica Basso, Gartner's research vice president. "Today, social paradigms are converging with email, instant messaging (IM) and presence, creating new collaboration styles."
That new collaboration style casts a wide net. And it works with an extensive palette of tools that let companies share data, create networks, communicate and form groups both internally and with external partners.
"It's not just collaborating within the organization," Ogneva said. "You have a tremendous opportunity because of social tools to collaborate with your entire ecosystem. Social is not just talking to your customers and partners on Facebook. We need to expand our notion of collaboration and invite the entire ecosystem to participate. It's about becoming a deeper learning organization."
The social layer sits on top of a company's business systems and liberates the data that come from customers -- how people actually use its products -- partner input and competitive research, she said.
"It's not just about talking with people; it's about people interacting with business data that is already there," Ogneva said.
Social tools unite all this data, extract insight and make that insight actionable.
"It's one thing to learn what people are saying about your organization, but it's not until you share with colleagues and collaborate that you're going to be able to do anything about it," she said. "It's this whole part of doing something about it that is infinitely more complex than just capturing what's being said about you."
Social's mission is also to tear down the information silos that are inevitably erected in all enterprises. Hierarchy may have its place in efficient task management, but it's a poor steward of an organization's need for knowledge.
"We all have silos created by systems and organizational structure," Ogneva said. "The challenge right now is to get all these systems talking to each other. And not just talking with each other, but bringing the necessary insights and the right data to the right people at the right time."
Social is becoming an organizational imperative because of the proliferation of consumption devices and the meteoric rise of cloud computing, she said.
"We're operating in a world where velocity is increasing and the innovation curve is getting steeper and steeper," Ogneva said. "Velocity is not going away."
The social layer, she believes, is the enabling technology that gives businesses the tools they need to succeed in an environment shaped by innovation and high velocity. It establishes a common collaboration platform. But it's an enabling technology that can't work its magic in isolation. It's incredibly important, but it's not the only thing, Ogneva said.
Technology, culture & process
"You need to have a holistic strategy, of which social is a strong foundation," she said. The other key ingredients are a company's culture—does it enable sharing and collaboration?—and its processes—the way technology is woven into how a company conducts its business. When you put the three ingredients together, you've picked the winning trifceta for a successful social enterprise. But they all have to be present.
While the innovation curve is getting steeper and steeper, the learning curve for the use of the proliferating consumer-friendly consumption devices is getting shorter and shorter. What is not getting shorter, though, is the need to educate people on the business use of these tools and how they interact with each other.
"As devices become easier to use, education will have to shift from 'how to' to questions of etiquette and governance," Ogneva said.
Social tools need a context
Social tools need a context to be meaningful to an organization's members. Employees need to know not just what these do and how to use them but also how they relate to the company's core mission and business objectives.
"To put a tool out there without some stated vision that people can rally behind will never get you far," Ogneva said.
And the tool has to be threaded into a company's processes. Employees must understand each communications and collaboration medium and understand the consequences of using a specific medium.
"What we're seeing is the melding and morphing of technology and culture coming together," Ogneva said. "If you unleash a tool like Yammer and it spreads because it has virality built into it, people love it. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves at work and be infinitely more creative and collaborative."
Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.