How to Maximize Social Media for Improved Business Collaboration

By Tim Minahan  |  Posted 2010-04-19

How to Maximize Social Media for Improved Business Collaboration

E-mail stinks for collaboration. No matter how many Outlook folders you create and quirky naming trends you invent to keep document versions straight, you can't change the facts: E-mail in general (and Outlook, in particular) is a clunky way to manage evolving documents, discussions and intellectual property (IP). And it also fails to tap into the broader collective knowledge in your company, contacts, customers and industry. It is like applying 1990s, AOL-CD-in-the-mail-for-your-dial-up-Internet technology to the age of the cloud.

Luckily for us, social media provides a broad set of tools and platforms that can help you leverage the collective IQ of a broader set of collaborators-all while operating in the cloud, above the maze of file folders in Outlook, your desktop and intranet.

"Aha!" you say. "So that's what all of this talk of the cloud is for!"

Yes. But before getting too excited about all of the opportunities for utilizing Squidoo to get pulled pork tenderloin BBQ recipes and Hootsuite to follow Shaq's every move, let's focus on how social media can help you collaborate on your pressing work requirements.
In other words, how can social media make you a better employee? How can it make you the one who gets praised by management for being in touch with technology-and the one who gets promoted? (And the one who can then afford to buy that new car with built-in Twitter functionality.)

Social media and collaboration

The strength of social media for business collaboration is in two areas: First, it helps you work more efficiently with the people on your team. Second, it helps you get valuable feedback from a larger group of people in your company, field, role, region or customer base.

On the first point, no one would argue that the combination of e-mail, conference calls and documents on the intranet is a very effective way to work together. With that challenge in mind, Google put a team of developers on the case to answer the question, "If e-mail were invented today, what would it look like?"

Their result, although still in a very restricted access beta mode, is Google Wave. Google Wave combines the best of documents, instant messaging (IM), e-mail and wikis. It's a tool that lets cross-functional teams spread over time zones collaborate in real time, literally seeing each other's typing take place. Google Wave is in beta and it's got a long way to go before prime time. But once they work out the kinks (and this is Google, so they will work out the kinks eventually), it could be a great tool for businesses.

Online Communities Encourage Collaboration

Online communities encourage collaboration

But you don't have to wait. Online communities and other social media tools already allow you to collaborate in a free flowing, yet trackable way. Imagine posting the latest revision of a document-say, a quarterly business review-and having others weigh in with questions and edits.

Need more people involved? Simply invite them to participate in the discussion. Would news, video or other documents on the Web help you make your case? Add them. Need to share your work? Syndicate it with a feed and let Google index it so the world can find it-for free.

Collaborative tools in social media platforms-including blogs, discussions, microblogs, wikis and video-open a lot of doors. For example, a company can now have open access areas where customers, prospects and subject matter experts can engage in discussions on best practices, solutions, commodities and a host of other topics. But when it comes to collaboration, that company can utilize the private group areas of the platform. There the team from a single customer account can share a private work space with their counterparts at the company. Quarterly business reviews, questions, goals and any other private yet mission-critical information can be shared among those key players.

Social media gives companies the ability to listen to customers-an ability that should not be overlooked. These platforms enable you to hear what people are saying about your brand-from tech support issues (which you can step in and resolve) to help with new product ideas. Listen to these folks and you'll be engaging the most powerful force for collaboration you could ever unleash on your product development process: your customers. Hear your customers out and then discuss (either publicly on Twitter, privately in a secure community environment or even old school over the phone) what exactly you can do to address their current or future needs.

Other tools-such as sentiment monitoring or ideation platforms-provide an invaluable, quantifiable perspective on the relative importance of services, features and functionality. Keep your ear to the ground of the online world and engage your customers. You'll then see one of the most powerful collaborative interactions a marketer could ever hope to see: unsolicited praise for your company from a customer who's not on your formal reference list, yet who is pointing prospects to your door.

Collaborate Using LinkedIn

Collaborate using LinkedIn

And how about the big-and I mean BIG-potential for social media to facilitate collaboration among peers around the globe who otherwise may not have ever had any chance to connect? Obviously there's a huge opportunity when you consider the "long tail" of the Internet and how it can bring people in similar roles, industries and geographies together to discuss the pressing issues of the day.

But, in the past, that was an opportunity best leveraged by IT folks and Web marketers (who talked among themselves about how great the Web was at engaging their customers, often while failing to actually engage their customers). Not anymore. LinkedIn, customer communities, Twitter and, to a decreasing extent, blogs, have filled this gap and opened the door to true collaboration.

For example, a company can run a LinkedIn group with a specific goal in mind. The group could gain tens of thousands of members (and that number can grow daily). Those members can all have access to an enormous pool of collective knowledge about their field, risks, vendors, opportunities and even jobs. And although "social media" brought the company and those LinkedIn group members together, old school methods can be utilized to carry on the discussions such as group conference calls led by industry analysts or other experts. The conference call leader can discuss the issues facing companies in their particular industry and then open the floor up for a free flowing discussion. Short of that, how could these professionals have had access to a resource such as these experts or to one another? Beats me.

The bottom line is, social media can play a prominent role in connecting you with your peers-from those down the hall working on the same projects to those across the globe whose common challenges keep both of you up at night. If you leverage the tools at your disposal, you can be more successful-and avoid the infamous
#fail hashtag.

Tim Minahan is the Chief Marketing Officer at Ariba, responsible for the design and execution of the company's global marketing programs. Prior to Ariba, Tim served as senior vice president of marketing at Procuri, chief services officer at Aberdeen Group, and a prolific technology journalist. Tim holds a Bachelor's degree from Boston College. Follow and engage Tim at @tminahan or reach him at

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