We asked thousands of managers to tell us how their companies are using social media tools — and how important those tools are becoming to their organizations. Here’s what they told us.

Companies such as McDonald’s, IBM and SAP are at the cutting edge of social business practice. Hasso Plattner, SAP cofounder and chairman of the board, seeks feedback from SAP mentors, who are nominated by SAP’s online community.

Image courtesy of McDonald's.

These days, the enterprise resource planning software company SAP has an online community with more than 2 million members, including customers, partners and others. The SAP community network is a source of trustworthy information about SAP products from (and for) the people who use them.

SAP uses this network in several interesting ways. Each year since 2007, the SAP online community has nominated roughly 100 members to be SAP mentors — influencers recognized for their subject matter expertise and their willingness to mentor other community members.1 SAP mentors are expected to mentor SAP itself. They have extra access to product managers and can influence product development. As Mark Yolton, senior vice president of SAP communities and social media, explains, these mentors also give feedback to SAP’s executive team:

Hasso Plattner, our cofounder and chairman of the board, invites mentors to brainstorm with him. No PowerPoint, no set agenda. He just gets a bunch of mentors in the room, usually at one of our big events. They give him honest feedback from the field about what’s really going on with our customers and our partners and our employees as well. Our co-CEOs and a board member, who is responsible for innovation at SAP, also meet with the mentors to hear their feedback. Mentors are people in our community who are very engaged with SAP partners and customers. They have a great deal of influence on outside perceptions of SAP, on influencing our own product direction and on our strategy.

SAP’s evolving use of its online community for increasingly strategic purposes highlights several important questions.

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References

1. For more information about SAP mentors, see M. Finnern, “SAP Mentor Program,” SAP Community Network (blog), November 15, 2007, http://scn.sap.com; and “SAP Mentor Initiative FAQs,” accessed May 25, 2012, https://wiki.sdn.sap.com

2. As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP and Deloitte Services LP, which are separate subsidiaries of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

3. D.M. Smith et al., “Predicts 2010: Social Software Is an Enterprise Reality,” Gartner Research, December 3, 2009.

4. D. Kiron, interview with Andrew McAfee, “What Sells CEOs on Social Networking,” February 7, 2012, http://tablet.mitsmr.com.

5. G. Tay, “Ask Five Questions to Determine Whether to Deploy Social Software Bottom-Up or Top-Down,” Gartner Research, January 20, 2011.

6. Of course, social business activities can be valuable in many ways. It is our belief that social business activities in these four areas have the potential to generate substantial value.

7. E. von Hippel, S. Ogawa and J.P.J. de Jong, “The Age of the Consumer-Innovator,” MIT Sloan Management Review 53, no. 1 (fall 2011): 27-35.

8. S. Nambisan and P. Nambisan, “How to Profit From a Better ‘Virtual Customer Environment,’” MIT Sloan Management Review 49, no. 3 (spring 2008): 53-61. For an analysis of Threadless and social media, see D. Hinchcliffe and P. Kim, “Social Business by Design: Transformative Social Media Strategies for the Connected Company” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012). For more details about Lego’s experience, see Y.M. Antorini, A.M. Muñiz, Jr. and T. Askildsen, “Collaborating With Customer Communities: Lessons From the Lego Group,” MIT Sloan Management Review 53, no. 3 (spring 2012): 73-79.

9. J. Hagel, “Pull Platforms for Performance,” February 20, 2012, http://edgeperspectives.typepad.com.

10. Providing clear guidance about communications external to a business can be tricky, especially in regulated industries like health care and financial services. Too much guidance can put a damper on social business activities. “If I ask an organization for their social media policy, and I get back a 50-page document,” says Andrew McAfee, “that might as well just say, we’d prefer it if you don’t use social media.” Even in unregulated industries, too much oversight can cast a shadow on innocent interactions. Keri Pearlson described a recent meeting with a colleague and two representatives from a large technology company. Her colleague tweeted that she and Pearlson were at a lunch meeting, naming the company but not the individuals. When the representatives returned to work, the office was buzzing about who was speaking without authorization about the company. Staff had been monitoring information flows from Twitter about the company and had seen the tweet from Pearlson’s colleague.

11. M. White and B. Briggs, “Tech Trends 2012: Elevate IT for Digital Business,” Deloitte, 2012.

i. Social media is how people get together virtually to accomplish outcomes. Social networks are formal descriptions of groups of people who congregate in a social medium. Social software is the set of tools that gives people in a social network the means for automation, virtualization, scale and abstraction.

ii. Not all social business activities will produce mutually useful connections between individuals. In some cases, it may be beneficial to diminish certain connections between staff or with some customers.

iii. Other uses of “social business” might refer to organizations or to economic systems that promote some notion of social welfare. For an example of the latter, see M. Yunus, “Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs” (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010).

iv. See F. Gossieaux and E. Moran, “The Hyper-Social Organization: Eclipse Your Competition by Leveraging Social Media” (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010); and A.J. Bradley and M.P. McDonald, “The Social Organization: How to Use Social Media to Tap the Collective Genius of Your Customers and Employees” (Cambridge: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011).