Leadership Development

Using Social Technologies to Find the Future Business Leaders

Innovative companies are capitalizing on social technologies as transformational tools for developing connected workplaces.

- By Dave Desouza

One of the challenges global companies face is finding ways to maintain the company’s brand message while promoting innovation and communication among a geographically and culturally diverse workforce. The problem is extremely complex when the company has over 430,000 employees working in 170 countries, like IBM. The rapid pace of technological breakthroughs, increasing competitive pressures, and work that radically changes in terms of structure and process, has led many companies to move beyond simple social media and embrace a full menu of social technologies that support a collaborative culture. Crowdsourcing, mobile devices, gaming, and other ideas and products are radically changing the way people work, communicate, share ideas, and develop. Emerging from the seeming chaos is agility, innovation, and future leaders.

Preparing to Collaborate

Creating a socially connected global workforce requires thinking differently about hierarchies and the role of workers in the organization. Though hierarchies still exist, the traditional business model is cumbersome and has difficulty responding with innovative competitiveness. It takes too long for new ideas to make it to the decision-makers. One of the first building blocks of the connected workplace is developing an organization in which there are cross unit or cross function groupings with more decentralized decision making.

When hierarchies come down and layers are reduced, people begin to work together without unnatural boundary restrictions. Technology has been a major factor in eliminating many of the barriers to collaboration previously created by job title and job function. Managers need technical people able to make critical decisions, blurring the line between staff levels. As boundaries disappear, teamwork flourishes. Teamwork is a hallmark of the socially connected organization. Teams can be offline or online, but when formed with the people who can make rapid decisions with expertise and through collaborative effort, the business is likely to experience continuous improvement.

People able to freely communicate within an organization need to be on board with the organization’s mission, values, and goals. These factors become the guiding forces for keeping the communication on track, as opposed to managers enforcing compliance to instructions. In a collaborative environment, management will move more into a coaching or mentoring role, rather than one giving orders. These characteristics in the global, technology based business environment better accommodate work that has radically changed. Work structures and processes have evolved over time from being information based to knowledge based and now to social and interactive based. People should be able to work across tasks or projects, participate on teams, network, and go mobile.

Giving Voice to Employees

The workplace just described is the perfect setting for using social technologies to support the collaboration and innovation desired. IBM is held up as an example. The global giant has employed a variety of social technologies in surprising ways. In essence, leadership turned the voice of the company over to its 400,000 employees and gave them all the tools they needed to freely communicate internally and with customers. There is no single corporate blog because employees and not senior management are directing the conversations. There over 17,000 internal blogs, a customized site called SocialBlue for employees that is similar to Facebook, external blogs connected staff to the marketplace, and so on.

One of the most interesting strategies IBM uses is crowd-sourcing for generating the best new business ideas. The IBM “Jam” is a Web 2.0, described by the company as a “…business collaboration [tool] focused on strategic, business-critical issues. It engages anyone and everyone in the organization –from the intern to the CEO – to speak their mind, surfacing the kind of ideas that improve business.” There has been a Values Jam to redefine core values; an Innovation Jam that led to the launching of 10 new IBM businesses based on input from over 150,000 people from 104 countries; and many others. Incubator businesses included smarter transportation systems and intelligent utility systems. There are also Jams held to help clients find business solutions.

Using social technologies to their fullest requires the corporation to “let go.” The natural inclination of companies is to establish strict rules and dictate brand messaging. That is not the case with IBM. The company’s staff is prohibited from sharing proprietary information, but that is about the only restriction. There are no instructions on brand messaging because IBM wants people to self-regulate. There are is no social media corporate oversight from above, which many readers will likely find shocking.

IBM blogs are well-known. With over 17,000 internal blogs used regularly by 100,000 employees, the forum is filled with conversations about work and family, self-promotion of ideas or projects, and idea exchanges. It is the thousands of voices sharing anything they want to share (within self-regulated boundaries) in the way of photos, presentations, ideas, expertise, videos and so on. Most of the external communications with each other, and with customers, are managed through LinkedIn. IBM does benefit from this environment in more ways than one. In addition to developing an innovative culture and connecting dispersed employees, many of the new ideas turn into new IBM products.

Finding the Leaders

The new workplace is collaborative, connected and mobile. One of the advantages of this type of work environment is that future leaders have every opportunity to learn from others and to share their own expertise and creativity. They can also demonstrate their willingness to collaborate and be a team member. In the case of IBM, natural leaders have emerged around the world, and that is critical to the company’s long-term success.

L’Oréal is another company that has developed a socially connected organization on a global scale. The company uses networking in its e-learning programs, encourages employee resource groups that communicate through internal blogs, and recruits talent using an online business game that requires team participation.

Social technologies can be used in many different ways, but getting the full benefits requires a supportive and collaborative culture and work environment. Controlling management and hierarchal structures suppress interaction and thus innovation, no matter how many internal blogs are established. That is a formula that does not fit the global business environment. What does fit are social technologies able to build strong, connected workforces around the world.