Social media can be extremely disruptive. Even in the short time since Facebook grew into a global phenomenon, it has already had a profound effect on the way we communicate with our friends, families and like-minded communities. Excited by the possibility of engaging with potentially hundreds of millions of users through sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, the corporate sector is looking for ways to find its voice in this brave new world.
Even the federal government has appointed an independent taskforce with the specific purpose of coming up with a strategy for engaging with the Australian public more effectively through blogs, wikis and the popular social networking sites.
Mike Hickinbotham is a senior adviser on social media at Telstra and played a central role in the creation of the company's 3Rs of Social Media Engagement policy.
The 3Rs - defined as representation, responsibility and respect - comprised one of the first attempts by a large Australian corporation to offer its employees guidelines on the acceptable use of social media that protect both worker and company from unwanted exposure.
Hickinbotham says the telco has come a long way since it first launched a blog three years ago.
But he says that it was a real culture shift to become comfortable with customers using Telstra's online assets to bad-mouth the company.
It was clear from what they were saying that there were customer service difficulties, so the telco set up support accounts on Twitter for both Telstra and BigPond services so that it could reach out to people with problems.
"So we tried to add some value to the conversation by participating," Hickinbotham says. "It's OK if someone says something negative about you, and it's OK if you don't get it right at first, because you can fall back and re-engage. I think that's been quite helpful."
But not everybody is convinced. Jim Hegarty, who recently retired as chief information officer at the NSW Department of Human Services, says the organisation is still trying to figure out whether it views social networking as a potential asset in engaging with citizens or a huge threat.
"In government, chief executives tend to lose their job if they embarrass the government, not actually because of the specific performance of the organisation," he says. "So having representations made in social media that were contrary to either the department's policy or government policy was seen as being a potentially very uncomfortable thing for the organisation.
"There's also a fair degree of scepticism within our organisation as to what the actual benefits might be. We have lots of people who would like to use social networking capabilities, but actually translating that into what's in it for the organisation has proved to be fairly difficult."
The CIO of national law firm Sparke Helmore, Peter Campbell, says his company, and the legal sector in general, has taken a relatively conservative view of social networking. It allows staff access before and after business hours, to cater for employees who don't have a personal computer at home, but not during the day.
QBE Insurance executive general manager of strategy and technology, Pranav Pasricha, says his company has also been slow to open up social networking access to employees but it faces growing pressure internally to do so.
Pasricha is still concerned about the potential impact on productivity.
"There is an addictive element to things like Facebook and Twitter," Pasricha says. "We all know that there are demotivated employees who no longer want to contribute, and others outside the organisation can send distracting messages every five minutes. That really doesn't exist to the same extent in other tools and technologies."
Logistics firm DB Schenker is also considering its options, after having taken a zero-tolerance approach to social networking so far.
"We've taken the ultimate conservative approach and just completely blocked it right out," IT general manager Stephen Beacham says. "But we have increasing demand coming from our client base because they want to engage and change the way that we communicate with them.
"How do we restructure our strategy to deal with security and all of those other concerns within the organisation and not compromise any of our policies? Clients want different forms of communication and we need to rise to that challenge."
One of the biggest concerns many organisations have about allowing employees to access social networking sites is the potential impact on productivity.
The group manager for information systems at engineering company Sinclair Knight Merz, Tony Yortis, says that the top 10 list of websites being used in his organisation is dominated by social networking destinations like Facebook and Twitter.
The challenge, he says, is to work out how to harness these sites as a productivity tool rather than block them, which can hurt workforce relations.
"You can't force your values onto other people - it's not right," Yortis says. "We also recognise that we have to move with the times. Whether we like it or not, social networking is here and we just need to provide some guidelines and understanding on how to actually use it."
Financial advisory firm Deloitte has embraced social media earlier and more extensively than most organisations. CIO Tim Fleming says the company provided some budget commentary through Twitter this year and has also been an enthusiastic user of Facebook as a recruitment tool.
"We are keen to address any inherent risks associated with [social media] but it's very much part of our brand," he says.
Deloitte has also used Twitter for consultants to contact each other and share information. In one example, somebody asked for potential project names and got 50 responses that they could take back to the client within a matter of minutes.
Tony Ferguson Weightloss Program head of technology Julian Lamb says organisations that refuse to jump online and embrace social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are missing a great opportunity to find out what customers are saying about them.
He says staff productivity is a concern but points out that this is a management issue that can be readily tackled with reporting tools.
Facebook used to be banned at Pacific Magazines until its marketing people established a genuine business need for it - clients were using it to send invitations. Then the editorial side made a request, followed by sales. Now IT manager Bjorn Jacobsen says it will be opened up for all.
Telstra's Hickinbotham says the perception of people wasting time on social networking sites is overplayed.
He cites a study conducted by Brent Coker at the University of Melbourne's department of management and marketing, which found that workers who did leisure browsing at work are on average 9 per cent more productive than those who don't, because short bursts of interaction with friends help people refresh and refocus their concentration.
But there are people who will abuse the privilege - Coker raises the possibility that about 14 per cent of people may suffer from an internet addiction.
IDC technology analyst Linus Lai says it's important that organisations craft a policy for the acceptable use of social media - and rule No. 1 should be that people be upfront about who they are because that makes them accountable for what they communicate.
"If you shoot an email out to a competitor revealing trade secrets, your employer could go through discovery and you'll be found out," he says. "Social media can be a bit more difficult than that."
Salesforce.com director Collin Penman says social media gives us an opportunity to change the way we do business. The customer relationship management (CRM) software maker is engaged with a number of clients in the region who are using social media as a way of tapping into public ideas.
So, for example, instead of a company trying to come up with a design for new shoes, it asks consumers what they want and gives them the opportunity to vote on possible designs. Management then takes the best ideas and uses them to create products that can be taken to market.
But IDC's Lai suggests the need for transparency goes along the supply chain now and even organisations that don't supply to consumers need to be aware of the challenges this presents.
On the plus side, business-to-business communications are usually sent to a more knowledgeable audience. As a result they are more likely to be targeted and facilitate more useful engagement.
From a B2B perspective, DB Schenker's Beacham notes that many organisations have moved production offshore and says social networking could be used to help improve collaboration and iron out problems as they arise. "You could actually turn it around into an opportunity rather than seeing it in a negative light," he says.
"It's a chance to get partners and customers understanding their core problems, talking about them and working together to resolve them."
SKM's Yortis also sees similar benefits in being able to get community feedback more quickly on proposals for a new road or building.
"You need to get feedback on how you're affecting people's lives day to day," he says. "We see social networking as a great medium to bring feedback in faster."
Pacific Magazines' Jacobsen says the company is trying to tap into social networking tools like Facebook as a way of building and maintaining relationships with its magazines' readers.
While a growing number of CIOs can see potential benefit in using social media to engage customers, the reality is that only a small minority have actually done so to date.
Sparke Helmore's Campbell says the greatest inhibitor so far has been a lack of perceived benefit because its customers were largely conservative and had not expressed any desire to communicate with the company through tools such as Facebook or Twitter
Ignore, listen or engage
Organisations have three social networking choices - to ignore, listen or engage - according to Telstra's Hickinbotham.
"By listening you can identify who the people are out there and what they're saying," he says. "You can take that information and link it back to one of your business objectives.
"You can work out a strategy in terms of how you want to change people's behaviour and then at the very end you begin taking a look at technology."
Telstra has set up customer service support through Twitter. It also uses tweets (the short messages sent on Twitter) to conduct small real-time surveys that offer a snapshot of such factors as buying intentions and customer satisfaction.
When Hickinbotham saw a blog post from someone who was asking how they could program a Foxtel iQ set-top box using an iPhone, he was able to ask the product manager and jump online to post a response.
"So it becomes a different sort of mindset within the company if you give people the skills and a sense of self-responsibility by educating them on what to do," he says.
"If they can get access to information, then there's a real opportunity for everyone to become an ambassador for the organisation." MIS Australia
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