If you think it's a fad, don't bet your job or your company on it.
If you watched the movie The Social Network, there was a story that was even bigger than the one about Mark Zuckerberg's entrepreneurial success, his jilted partner, his legal problems, and his self-absorbed personality. It was about how the Internet and basic social needs collided head-on and went mainstream. Since the advent of Facebook in 2005, the way humans compete for inclusion and validation in their social circles has been transformed forever.
It is no secret that social networking activity has exploded. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are currently the most well-known offerings, and many of the interactions, especially on Facebook and Twitter, are around people trading gossip and sharing family photos, music, jokes, and the like, all as a means of trying to impress their social circle. In professional dimensions, however, the interactions are very different.
Think of professional social networks as a million different user groups sharing resources, information, tips, opinions, critiques, and more. Certainly, many computing professionals accessed forums, discussion groups, listserv groups, and chat rooms to share information long before Facebook. But now that social networking has gone mainstream, professional usage has exploded across all industries, and these discussions are increasingly happening within mainstream social networks, not just individual forums.
Because of these ubiquitous social networks, discussions on every imaginable topic are happening in ways that didn't happen before. If there is any kind of interest on any topic, you can be sure there are communities of people dedicated to sharing and moderating information on those topics. Because of these widespread and ever-expanding networks, corporations, small businesses, non-profits, and government agencies are learning that people are talking about their niche if not about the entity itself (and even the people within it!). Online communities are exchanging and tracking information, as well as giving advice, references, criticisms, and rebuttals. In every group, there are experts and influencers who have arisen because of their consistent, relevant, and useful input.
Ignore at Your Own Peril
If people are talking about your industry, market niche, and company, doesn't it make sense to be part of that conversation rather than ignore it? Watching and contributing to these conversations can bring about remarkable opportunities for you, your peers, your management, and your organization. Or you can ignore these conversations at your own peril.
It's not uncommon to hear people say that they don't want anything to do with social networks. Objections such as it being a vacuous time-waster ("who cares where someone went on vacation!") filled with privacy pitfalls are justified. But like any other new kind of media, it is a matter of how one uses that media; it's not the media itself. Think about the advent of TV, the Internet, and email. Sure TV is full of garbage and questionable content, but enlightening, creative, and highly informative content is easily available. Remember when companies were terrified about making the Internet available to employees? Yes, any kind of objectionable content can be accessed in seconds, but the Web has fueled a commercial and informational revolution; there's barely a company or a professional who could do productive work without it. And of course, we'd be lost without email despite the scourge of spam that has taken it over. As with any media, the usefulness or uselessness of social media (all social networks viewed as a whole make social media) is in how one uses the technology. When used correctly, social media is a remarkably powerful—dare I say it, transformative—communication mechanism.
As a means for marketing products and services, social media is turning traditional marketing practices on its head. And social media is transforming entire organizations because, as with marketing, it demands that communities are sought out and engaged, not just shouted at with a megaphone. The days of one-way communications from a central power structure to prospects, customers, vendors, partners, stockholders, and employees are numbered. Because constituencies are increasingly using social media, individuals are demanding that the organizations they are associated with—or are considering doing business with—also use social media. More often than not, organizations and professionals are becoming conspicuous by their absence. Just like the organizations that were slow to understand they needed a Web site and then had to rush to play catch-up, organizations that don't provide regular constituent engagement via social media will soon be seen as laggards. Even worse, constituents may already be wondering what the organization is trying to hide by not participating.
A New Climate of Transparency
Social media enables a multi-way conversation; therefore, it's how people and companies participate in conversations that make the difference. Because social media can't be controlled the same way traditional media can, it means one's responsiveness and listening are put on display for all to see. If the content isn't open and transparent, the participant will likely be marginalized. The good news: it's requiring organizations of all kinds to be more transparent, more communicative, and more responsive. The companies and individuals that participate in the right spirit will thrive because their communities will embrace them and pass the word about the trustworthiness of these kinds of participants. The bad news: those that don't participate in the right spirit will be marginalized by the same word of mouth that lifts the good community citizens.
The transparency imperative, of course, is a double-edged sword, so it is possible, and even likely, that negative news will be quickly known and shared by the community. But the difference is in how you respond. If a quick and straightforward response is made with an intention to make things right, the community will generally respond favorably. For instance, if a customer is upset by some action by a company, but the company responds quickly and genuinely endeavors to rectify the problem, the bad publicity can be turned into good. I've heard it said that 10 great product reviews aren't as positive for a company as nine great reviews and one bad review in which it was documented that the disappointing experience was made right.
Do IBM Midrange Professionals Really Need to Care?
As with any social situation, if you want to stay relevant to your peers, you need to know what's going on. If you isolate yourself, you will soon find that your peers and perhaps the industry are passing you by. You can't just rely on traditional media and even your user group to keep you up to date on trends, skills, and job opportunities.
But don't get discouraged. You're already engaging in social networks if you are part of forums or listservs. If you're not, take a look at the list of these and many other System i social network resources at the end of this article. These are your communities. Get to know the players, and where appropriate and relevant, have them get to know you.
If you are an active part of your user groups such as COMMON, you know the people who have made a name for themselves by speaking, writing, doing workshops, and being the person with the answers. Think about it: these folks probably have little trouble finding a job when they are looking because they built and continue to nurture their network. You may not be a user group hotshot, but you can quickly find and build a wide network within social media circles by providing useful links to Web sites, articles, white papers, and jobs and chiming in from time to time on topics in which you are knowledgeable. Plus, you'll make yourself more valuable to your boss and your company by staying on top of relevant topics and trends.
A Marketing Transformation
If you work in marketing, engaging social networks can be a significant way of building your brand. But in social media, you don't build a brand by touting your brand. You build it by being a thought leader and information purveyor. Be engaged in the community by providing resources and recommendations. This builds trust and a positive reputation. It's okay to tactfully and occasionally mention that you work for a software, hardware, or services provider, but 99 percent of what you write should be about helping your fellow community citizens. Do this and people will remember you and your company in a very positive light and will recommend the company and its products when the subject arises.
Traditional marketing can't replace the value of positive peer recommendations, but participating in social media does not take the place of traditional marketing. When your traditional marketing reinforces that the company's primary purpose is to solve problems for customers, it works in concert with social media efforts. Of course, if excellent products, services, and customer care are missing from your company, no matter how clever the advertising and how helpful the participation in social networks, it won't have the same effect. When the product and service are great and the people in a company (particularly management) are valued citizens who have earned trust in online social networks, the effect on sales can be huge.
IBM Rides the Social Wave
One company in the IT space that understands and embraces the social network revolution is IBM. It is somewhat surprising given their size and relatively conservative culture, although they do develop and sell tools that enable intra-business social networking and collaboration. Nonetheless, IBM appears to practice what they preach by devoting a huge amount of people, software, money, and time to becoming a leading example of how the social networks can work. By actively, openly engaging with customers and partners, the improvements in collaboration and customer retention must be showing up on the bottom line or they wouldn't be investing all the resources they do. A recent article in the publication Business Insider cataloged the social networking activities conducted by IBM and its employees:
- 17,000 individual blogs
- 29,000 IBM communities
- 25,000 IBM employees actively tweeting on Twitter
- 300,000 IBM employees connected on LinkedIn
- 198,00 IBM employees on Facebook
- 1 million daily page views of internal wikis and internal information-storing Web sites
- 400,000 employee profiles on IBM Connections, IBM's internal social networking initiative that allows employees to share status updates, collaborate on wikis and blogs, and share files.
- 15,000,000 downloads of employee-generated videos/podcasts
Far from a Fad
Social networks, social media, and social business are not fads. If you are not participating, then you are missing out on an extraordinary opportunity to be more informed, to be more successful in your job, and to better find new job opportunities. If your company's marketing department is not participating, then it is missing out on significant opportunities to accelerate positive word-of-mouth buzz. If your company's management is not participating, then it is bypassing a chance to geometrically increase its efforts to get employees communicating and collaborating.
Ready to start? It's really not that hard; it just takes small but consistent investments in time and attention—just like you need to make to be successful in other important relationships. Here's a simple formula:
- Find and monitor your communities. Again, see the list at the end of the article.
- Listen. Get to know the players and get to know the tone of the community before chiming in.
- Contribute. But only do so where and when it's relevant. Be a good citizen of the communities you follow. Bring something to the table or just be quiet and observant (you can learn a lot!). Build trust and do all you can to nurture and protect your trustworthiness as this is the currency of social networks.
A Partial List of System i and Power System Social Networks
Active Groups on LinkedIn
COMMON A Users Group
AS/400 iSeries Pro
AS/400 Advanced Technical Experts
IBM AS/400 Blog
I5/AS400 Application Development and Support Network
as/400, os/400, iseries, system i, i5/os, ibm i, power systems, 6.1, 7.1, V7, V6R1