Guest author: Prepare to be Socialized for Profit!

Richard Muirhead, CEO of Tideway, shares his take on technology and the economy from the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.

The fast moving wave that is social computing swept through Davos on Thursday in a session titled “Organizing the Unorganizable: Social Computing and the Enterprise.” The interactive workshop assembled such luminaries as Paulo Coehlo, Jim Schwartz, Michael Arrington, Robert Scoble, Jimmy Wales, Matt Cohler, and Reid Hoffman, among others. The goal was to address many of the questions around social computing’s business applicability, such as: What advantages does it bring? What are its risks and how can they be mitigated? How can it support leadership, decision-making, product development and innovation? And what role does it play in investor/client relations and support?

In the true spirit of social computing (and democracy) we were divided into tables to provide answers to three of these questions. We then voted individually on our preferred answer to the first of three questions, with two further rounds of knock-out. Think of it as a “Social Idol” of sorts. We kicked off with what seemed to be a simple question: What on earth is social computing? My vote went for “Like a marriage, totally desirable but ultimately uncontrollable.” That was perhaps only because I didn’t pipe up quickly enough with my own definition: “Mimicking the intimacy, chaos and adaptability of families, teams and tribes in software so they can scale to cover the globe.” Perhaps wordier than another attendee’s take: “Getting pleasure from other people having insight into your private and professional life.”

According to the group, the trickiest subject to tackle with social media seemed to be investor relations, due to the legal disclosure and timing issues. But the point was raised that many large companies employ full-time employees, armed with specific software tools, and dedicated to monitoring the blogosphere and tweets. After all, to be forewarned is to be “forearmed” when it comes to an issue that could quickly snowball for the worse (the recent Motrin debacle, anyone?). Or you can monitor those same virtual words to, say, gain an investing edge.

So what are the fundamental advantages of new social media technologies? In terms of usability and appeal, the user interfaces of social technologies easily outstrip those of most existing corporate tools. Chalk that up to its consumer internet genetics. In fact, the acid test is really “no training, no manuals.” If you can’t get started yourself, it’s a failure. What’s more, the consumer internet itself is a massive sandpit and training ground for your employees in a particular mode of user interaction (think Google, Yahoo, AJAX). Given that one of the fiercest accusations historically leveled at enterprise software has been the challenges of widespread and effective adoption, good luck to anyone choosing to fight social technologies imbued with this intrinsic advantage. In fact, it was mentioned in a session that in a Forrester Research survey conducted a year ago, 46% of companies claimed they planned to invest more in social computing. Among other things, this includes Wikis, networks and blogs. Now, a year later, the survey has been repeated - and the result is that the number has jumped to 47%! While this small increase may not initially seem impressive, remember that we are in the midst of incredibly challenging economic times, and companies are lucky if their investment budgets even remain steady. Plus, overall, 66% of CEOs say they intend to invest in social computing at some point in time.

So what’s the best rallying call if faced with reluctant senior management? It seems from the sessions here that this question may be close to moot considering the tide of adoption in younger generations and the fundamental advantages of social technologies. Instead, the pertinent question seems to be how we most effectively embrace them. We can do that by promoting the aspects that are working well and keeping a close eye on the unruly elements.

Here’s an interesting example. During an earlier Thursday session for Tech Pioneers on how to weather the current economic storm, the discussion notes for our table were taken directly onto one attendee’s iPhone (despite an abundance of paper). The suggestion was made that perhaps they were published straight onto a blog. One might say that’s an example of social media in action. Surely making our relationships, habits and preferences transparent can help us learn to evaluate these for what they are. Obviously there must be a time and place for total privacy, but the impact of social media is first to scale the communications of our human interactions, and then highlight the responsibilities.

Apparently some studies have found that the most trusted digital medium was an email from someone you know, followed by user-rated reviews. Personal and corporate blogs, however, came right at the bottom of the list. So expect me to email this to each of you individually.

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