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The power and the pitfalls of social networking.

The power and the pitfalls of social networking

Social media have been around for a little while, but businesses have generally been slow to take advantage of them.

A couple of years ago, for example, it was unusual for companies to have Twitter profiles and Facebook pages. Now it is the norm. Firms have finally come to recognize that social-media technologies offer them scope for collaboration, networking and information sharing.

But there are also risks. Privacy can be compromised. Reputations carefully constructed over decades can be damaged in seconds.

How can companies make the most of social media to distance themselves from their competitors? How can the pitfalls be avoided? The examples of New-Jersey-based information-technology company Cognizant, Nissan Motor Company and Barclays Bank provide some answers.

In the July 2011 issue of Ivey Business Journal, Bala Iyer et al. explain that Cognizant successfully uses social media to help it to accomplish particular tasks and to build relationships with clients. Social media also help employees to share knowledge.

A specific knowledge-management tool enables participation through blogs, wikis and electronic discussion forums. Cognizant can 'tag', or put a content label on, documents, people and projects. This helps the company to build pools of project-specific expertise. It is well used, too. Some 80% of Cognizant employees have read content from the system and there have been more than a million blog posts and comments. Meanwhile, a special adaptation of the knowledge-management tool enables the company to deliver knowledge 'just in time' to consultants as they perform their work.

Cognizant has also created an exclusive online community, Cognizanti. This allows members - including Cognizant clients, academics and industrialists - to build and maintain their professional networks. 'It is a trusted environment in which thought leaders inside and outside Cognizant can have a dialogue on current and emerging IT topics, across many industries and geographies,' say Iyer et al.

The authors explain that social media work at Cognizant because they fit and reinforce the corporate culture of openness, empowerment, opportunity, flexibility and collaboration, and include regular contributions from senior managers at the firm. Moreover, Cognizant encourages employees not only to contribute to the social media, but also to consume their content.

Nissan Motor Company makes more limited use of social media than Cognizant, yet Twitter and Facebook are still important as a marketing, research and customer-services tool for the vehicle-maker.

According to Josh Cable, in the September 2011 issue of Industry Week, Nissan manages three Twitter streams and half a dozen Facebook pages. Some 300,000 follow the company on Facebook and the business is trying to increase this number.

Nissan markets new models to them and encourages their participation in, for example, naming a new optional interior package for one of its models. This kind of research is unlikely to replace focus groups, which offer a rigorous, multifaceted approach to product development, but it can play an important complementary role.

The banking industry has so far used social networking little, but that is changing. In Banking Technology's September 2011 issue, Neil Ainger provides short case studies of social networking at First Direct, La Caixa Bank in Spain, and Barclays.

Barclays aims to create a so-called 'digital beach-head' to deliver products and services to its customers across the world. As the first part of this development, the bank already offers 'Barclaycard Freedom', which delivers an app that enables customers to find participating retailers for rewards.

Its commercial-banking arm has developed the 'Take One Small Step' competition, to encourage dialogue with and between small-business owners.

Internally, Barclays has a tool similar to Facebook to enable employees to share and exchange work and customer-service ideas. An internal Twitter-like tool is also planned.

With the number of active Facebook users having risen from 12 million five years ago to 750 million today, and an estimated 65% of adult internet users now on sites such as Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter, social networking is a tool that businesses ignore at their peril.