As Business Goes Social, CIOs Sit on Sidelines

CIOs scrutinize social mediaThe disconnect between CIOs and the emerging world of social business became clear to me at a conference I attended about two years ago. I entered the room late, but figured I could quickly catch up on the proceedings by checking the Twitter stream of attendees. With an estimated 300 senior IT executives in the room, I expected there would be plenty of chatter going on.

To my surprise, not a single tweet had been logged during the past hour. A technology that was revolutionizing the way business people communicate was being completely unused by the executives who manage technology in America’s largest corporations. As I began prodding my network of CIO contacts, I learned that this was not unusual.

Most CIOs are taking an attitude of, at best, benign neglect toward social networks. A large percentage of them are still actively blocking employee access to sites like Facebook and YouTube. The most recent research by Robert Half Technology found that 31% of U.S. companies block social networks completely and 51% limit access to business purposes only. While those numbers have improved from two years ago, they still indicate an entrenched suspicion that social networks are at best time-wasting extravagances and at worst latent security threats.

Same Old Song and Dance

These fears are legitimate, but we’ve heard them before. The argument that employees will waste time on new technology goes back to the introduction of the personal computer. CIOs also closed ranks against Internet-based e-mail and the Web itself in the early days of those technologies, citing fears that employees would use their new toy computers for games or would subvert the central control of the IT organization.

In fact, that’s exactly what they did. And given access to social networks at work, people will use them to play and waste time. CIOs should not only accept this fact but embrace it.

Anyone who has children knows that playing is one of the most effective learning techniques humans have. Experimentation unearths ideas that have practical applications. On the early Web, people “surfed.” In the process, they learned the skills that have redefined office productivity. Today, the people who can quickly find, organize and interpret information are among the most valuable in the workforce. Playing pays off.

In its formative years, social media has been largely relegated to marketing departments under the assumption that it’s just another form of communications. BtoB magazine asked 375 marketers last year who was primarily responsible for social media within their companies. Only one person identified the IT department. My anecdotal observations pretty much echo that. CIOs just don’t see social as part of their charter.

What a shame, because social technologies has about as much to do with marketing as enterprise resource planning (ERP) does with accounting. This is about the finding new ways of doing business with a customer base that’s empowered with information. It’s the very center of where business is going.

Demand-Driven Economics

How Companies WinIn their book, How Companies Win: Profiting from Demand-Driven Business Models, Rick Kash and David Calhoun argue that developed economies are in the process of transitioning from supply-constrained to demand-driven. We are awash in goods and services today, they point out, and prices are flat to declining in many markets. That means that there’s little incremental benefit to be had from making supply chains more efficient. In the future, value will come from generating demand that never existed, as the iPhone has done.

A decade ago, CIOs played a key role in implementing ERP and optimizing supply chains in many companies around the globe. While some of that was a byproduct of the Y2K problem, their willingness to lead such mission-critical projects was a feather in their cap.

Now the rules have changed and the new challenge is to drive demand. The information-empowered customer will impact every business at every level. We are in the first stages of the shift in market conditions from supplier push to customer pull. Understanding the dynamics of these new interactions and organizing businesses around them will be the major business challenge of the next five years.

Why would CIOs not want to be at the center of all that?

John Dodge agrees with me. Writing on the Enterprise CIO Forum, he suggests that one reason CIOs aren’t more active in social business is that they see themselves as analytical types, making their skills ill-suited to social interactions. That may be true, but I’d argue that analytical skills are sorely needed to help companies make sense of the cacophony of conversations going on around them and their markets. Social business isn’t just about engagement, but also about listening and understanding. CIOs have a lot to contribute by applying algorithmic discipline to that process.