What is the Social Enterprise?

by Michelle McGinnis on Thursday, October 6, 2011 in Digital Marketing

Walking into Salesforce.com’s massive Dreamforce conference recently, a long banner greeted you. “Welcome to the Social Enterprise,” it declared.

The sign introduced a question that would linger on the minds of attendees and that Salesforce executives would try to answer: “Just what exactly is a social enterprise?”

Is a social enterprise a business that’s integrated social media platforms into its marketing and support functions? Is it all about social CRM? Are we talking about a larger industry shift or a marketing slogan?

The confusion, says Michael Krigsman, an industry observer and columnist for ZDNet, is that there’s no strict social enterprise definition. “There is no dictionary definition of the social enterprise,” he notes.

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Salesforce’s broadest definition is that the social enterprise is that “your brand is the sum of all conversations.” That’s necessarily big, and for many, a lot to wrap your head around.

"The 'social enterprise' to me refers to a business that connects employees to each other and to customers, through the power of social technologies,” says Zach Hofer-Shall, an analyst at Forrester Research.

In other words, the social enterprise is centered on an old-fashioned business concept: collaboration is good. “The social enterprise reinforces what businesses already know - that employees are more effective with access to internal and external communication channels - and applies it to social channels,” Hofer-Shall adds.

So what are the tools a social enterprise will employ? To be a truly collaborative business, you need more than the household names of social media, says R. Ray Wang, the CEO and principal analyst of Constellation Research Group. “Facebook and Twitter are fluffy social media tools that are consumer oriented and not enterprise class,” he adds.

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“The first platform (of the social enterprise) isn't one,” Wang continues. “It's an organizational readiness to embrace social concepts.  The second one isn't either. It's about aligning social with business direction and key business processes.  Once we have that in place, you got to start with listening.  Social media and other monitoring platforms need to be paired back to existing analytical platforms.  You start with this baseline to identify what your customers are saying about you and more importantly what your competitors customers are saying about them.”

Social tools that could also play a role would include CRM systems, mobile enabling tools, and even gamification systems, Wang suggests.

But all the pricey software tools in the world won’t make you a social enterprise if you don’t first invest in the company’s culture. At heart it's about aligning the sometimes disparate needs of employees and customers, and establishing a state of continual conversation between every aspect of the business.

“There’s not a switch that you flip,” Krigsman notes.

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In many ways, the public rise of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn might have helped change the way even powerful B2B companies think about collaboration, perhaps contributing to how businesses conceptualize the social enterprise, Krigsman adds. “The prevalence of consumer social media has prepared us to think about collaboration as something that is very important,” he says.

Nevertheless, for the social enterprise to emerge as industry-shaking business principle, it has to become more than a marketing slogan, observers say.

“Companies today with single channel presences, or even vast social presences across all social networks, still doesn't mean it's a social enterprise,” Hofer-Shall argues. “The ‘enterprise’ extends far beyond marketing.”

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