When’s the last time you approached an employee, perhaps about a new software tool or a cloud-based financial management system, and asked, simply, “What do you think of this?” If you can’t recall, says Vala Afshar, chief marketing and customer officer for network security firm Enterasys, your business is probably missing out on innovations and ideas fostered by a culture of collaboration.

Afshar participated in a panel discussion on realizing the potential of social business at Wednesday’s MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass. While the panel spent some time on the often-discussed benefits of a strong customer-facing social media strategy, the most compelling aspects of the session centered on the effects of improved internal communication and collaboration made possible by social business tools embedded within CRM and ERP systems.

Laura Bassett, director of customer experience management and emerging technologies at business collaboration software company Avaya, told the audience that higher employee engagement helps companies outperform their peers in the industry, and had the facts to back it up: A 2012 Gallup survey found that companies with highly engaged employees have 3.9 times the earnings per share growth rate compared to organizations with low engagement scores. A recent CFO Research Report also touched on how collaboration can drive productivity and lift financial performance.

To Kim Stevenson, corporate vice president and CIO of Intel, social business is about “achieving the most efficient processes you can have inside your company.” Intel is an enormous organization of 100,000 employees in 200 global facilities, she said, and the biggest problem it faces is finding the people and information that will help an employee get the job done as quickly as possible. They’ve implemented an enterprise social platform to address that problem. And since Enterasys began using Chatter, added Afshar, he has a seen a direct causal link between employee collaboration and company growth. “We’ve seen growth for the last four years and we’ve been a social business for the last four years,” he said.

Technology no doubt makes internal communication easier, the panel argued, but a company must make the conscious effort to adopt a “culture of connectedness,” a philosophy whereby employees are free to share their ideas and know that their colleagues and superiors are really listening, before they can make social business tools worth their while. “You have to think in transformation mode and really help employees understand their role in the value creation process,” said Stevenson. Without active participants, she said, all the collaboration tools in the world are useless to you.

Stevenson naturally argued that only the IT department is capable of sparking the adoption of such a philosophy across all aspects of the business, but one could argue that the CFO is in an even better position to do so. By serving as the strategic liaison between the board, the business and, frequently, the IT department, the CFO can leverage his position in the company to encourage communication between disparate departments and lead the implementation of social business tools. Another panel at the symposium on Wednesday even admitted that the IT department is rarely offered a seat at the proverbial table.

The overarching lesson for businesses offered by the panel is that social business goes beyond an outward-facing social media policy. Instead, CIOs, CFOs and other company leaders should look inward to figure out how social and collaborative tools can further connectedness within the organization, and thus boost creativity, innovation and, ultimately, profitability.

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