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ANALYSIS: Social networking is 'good for business'

Social networking has a controversial history as a business tool, particularly in larger organisations, where it has been viewed as a refuge for timewasters, amongst other things. Only last month Virgin Atlantic sacked employees for posting negative comments on the brand’s Facebook page.
However, a new report from thinktank Demos illustrates attitudes are changing and positive aspects of social media are coming to the fore.
The report, entitled Network Citizens, says that far from being a disruptive influence in the workplace, social networks such as LinkedIn and Plaxo can have positive implications for organisations. It suggests that encouraging employees to build relationships with colleagues across the company and with potential customers and partners, can help businesses in three key areas: productivity, innovation and democratic working. The report goes so far to suggest that social networking may help businesses become more adaptable and therefore better able to compete in a challenging economic climate.
“Social networks can provide a safety net for business,” said Peter Bradwell, Demos researcher and the report’s author. “In today’s difficult business environment the instinctive reaction can
be to batten down the hatches and return to ‘command and control’ techniques that enable managers to closely monitor productivity. Allowing workers to have more freedom and flexibility may seem counterintuitive, but it can create businesses more capable of maintaining stability.”
“Networking has always been a fundamental part of business,” said Robert Ainger, corporate director at Orange Business UK, which sponsored the report. “Its significance is increasing because of new technologies that enable us to connect to each other in our personal and professional lives. But it is also good for companies to be aware of the tensions and look at deploying guidelines to protect the positive impact of networks, not hamper it. Technologies and approaches to management that facilitate social networking are changing and they present opportunities in the current climate.”

Changing communications
Acceptance and support for the role of social networks in the current business landscape can be found elsewhere. Communicators in Business (CiB) – which represents internal and corporate comms professionals – has produced guidelines for companies seeking to understand how these new tools should be used in the workplace.
Paul Brasington, chair of CiB, says, “Since social networking tools offer exciting benefits for connecting communities of interest and improving the exchange of knowledge within an organisation, businesses can’t afford to ignore them.”
He also acknowledges a further drive is that accepted norms of communication are changing. “Younger people hardly use traditional email, preferring a mixture of text, IM and Facebook-type messaging, and businesses might think it’s best to let people communicate in whatever fashion they prefer.
However, Brasington doesn’t accept that social networking signifies a revolution in either inter- or intra-business communication. Rather, he says, it, “amplifies and extends the impact of the
water cooler conversations that will always go on.”

Business buying
Brasington is more sceptical regarding the use of social networking as part of the buying process for business products and services, suggesting suppliers have been using this medium to seek new tenders for some time, but – to the best of his knowledge – with only limited success. In time, he says, as use of social networking technologies become more accepted, so may its use for procurement. But when it does, the same rules for communication and relation management will still apply.
Meanwhile, procurement professionals appear to be more open to opportunities that social media presents. Emma Brookes, consultant at the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) says the trade body is involved with a number of experiments with social media, including various Facebook and LinkedIn groups, the use of wikis in the development of guideline documents for response to government consultations, and is implementing forum functionality on its website. “New members are joining on a daily basis. Social networking is becoming an important part of the procurement process.”
But despite her enthusiasm, Brookes echoes Brasington’s point that guidance on using social networking for procurement in business is neither desirable nor practical. “For good procurement practice, what tools are used doesn’t matter. Social media is just another channel; the fundamentals still apply.” In other words, business buyers don’t need specific advice on how to interact with potential suppliers via LinkedIn, and brands don’t need specific guidance on how to marketvia this channel.
It all adds up to an increasingly rapid maturation of social media as a business communication mechanism, and channel for marketing.
The level of optimism regarding its potential is good news for marketers and buyers alike, as is the fact that the consensus of advice seems to be on less control rather than more. Communications revolution or not, the onus is on each company itself to ensure it maxmises the opportunities these increasingly accepted and ubiquitous tools offer – both from a marketing and a buying perspective.

 

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