used with permission from IBM ForwardView

In this highly connected world where our personal lives are chronicled with Facebook and Twitter, there’s no doubt that social networking has changed how we communicate. But in the past couple years, social technology has proven to be more than just a way of staying connected to friends. Businesses are increasingly using these tools to promote collaboration among employees and engage in direct conversation with their customers in ways that were previously impossible.

The application of social technology to our work lives – or “social business” as it’s called – is profoundly changing the course of business. According to the 2012 IBM Global CEO study, “Leading through Connections,” the number of midmarket CEOs using social media as the top channel to engage with customers is expected to grow rapidly in the next three to five years, from 15 percent in 2012 to over 50 percent.

After some initial skepticism, companies seem to be undergoing a radical shift in thinking regarding the relevance of social networking. According to Jacques Pavlenyi, Senior Marketing Manager for Social Business at IBM, companies are reacting directly to the market pressure of an increasingly social world.

“Clearly there’s a lot of competitive differentiation for companies that are more social. And I think for a lot of companies when they understand that, any internal barriers or skepticism of social networking is quickly overcome,” says Pavlenyi. Accordingly, companies are seeing great success with integrating social networking technologies into the organization and as a result, the approach to social business is becoming more strategic.

“Companies are seeing pretty incredible numbers,” says Pavlenyi who has seen companies reduce customer defection rates by five percent, increase marketing exposure by 100 percent and bring new products to market in one-third of the time, all by using social business tools. In short, social business translates to good business.

Bolstering brands and creating collaboration

As a concept, social business applies social networking tools and culture to business roles, processes and outcomes. For many companies that means leveraging these tools to create a more open dialogue with customers and as a result, deepen customer relationships.

As social technology permeates our personal lives, it inevitably affects how consumers connect and interact with a brand. The most obvious change may be in how consumers research, purchase and provide feedback on products. In a world where consumers are equipped with smartphones and a larger platform to share their experiences, brands can be bolstered or bruised with lightning speed.

“We see a lot of companies today really taking advantage of public social media in a way to increase customer loyalty, increase advocacy, and ultimately increase revenues by doing things like listening to social media and trying to analyze and act on those insights and information,” says Pavlenyi.

While companies are using social technology to connect with customers outside the organization, they are also using these tools to collect intelligence inside its four walls. Social business tools allow companies to quickly coordinate activities and share knowledge among a geographically distributed workforce. By fostering better communication and collaboration, companies are improving how employees work and how productive they are.

Pavlenyi cites one example of a midsize company, LeVan & Neidenberg. A midsized law firm specializing in disability compensation and long-term disability cases, the firm saw dramatic gains in process efficiency by attacking benefits claim process bottlenecks with a more social workflow. Within the first five months the solution helped the firm process 53 percent more customers with the same staff, and within a year, the time required to fill out and submit government forms fell by 35 percent.

Incorporating social into your business

For midsize companies faced with limited resources and IT staff, incorporating social tools into the business may sound like another expensive endeavor. In fact, today’s technology has evolved to make it easier and more cost effective for smaller companies to become social businesses. Midsize companies no longer need to use untested tools and fly by night vendors to create a social environment.

Pavlenyi points to IBM Notes and Domino as a reflection of that evolution. In reality, many midsize companies already run their email and business process applications on this IBM workhorse. Pavlenyi notes, “Domino alone has tens of millions of applications today that are running on it – business critical applications like accounting, travel approvals and CRM.” IBM Notes and Domino Social Edition, the next iteration of the product line now out in beta and expected to be available in Q1 of this year, gives these companies a platform which they can build upon their existing infrastructure to incorporate social aspects into their business.

To start, users of the new edition will encounter what Pavlenyi calls a “rethinking of the whole user interface” which offers a more modern, cleaner look that is more characteristic of familiar social tools.

But it’s what under the hood of IBM Notes and Domino Social Edition, however, where some of the more profound changes have occurred. The new version will take advantage of newer open standards – like OpenSocial and OAuth, that allows users to integrate different applications on the user interface level. This means that users can access business applications as an “embedded experience,” directly from their email without having to leave it, maintaining a much more seamless experience for the end user. In fact, most business applications, not just email, can be modernized this way to allow accessing and interacting with any enabled application from any other enabled application without leaving one for the other.

For companies that are looking to become more mobile, the new edition provides what Pavlenyi calls the most comprehensive mobile collaboration in the industry. “We have better than most, if not all, support for any mobile device.” And for companies looking to take advantage of the benefits of cloud computing, the ability to transition Notes and Domino partially to the cloud through a hybrid deployment model, or move all the way to the cloud, is a hallmark of the IBM approach of choice and flexibility in deployment options.

Path is inevitable

In many respects, social networking has moved from a curiosity to a way of life. And more than just a shift in technology, social business is also about a cultural shift that is happening now. Similar to how the Internet changed business forever, social networking is making an equally significant impact on both our business and our personal lives.

And the path to social business is inevitable. As Pavlenyi explains, “the talk around social used to be about ‘it’s a great thing, but is there value there?’ I think we answered that question. Social networking has become a very normal behavior for the younger generation – a generation of consumers, a generation that is entering the workforce. Inevitably this will have a big impact on how businesses are behaving, organizing, selling and working.”