Social media outlets like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and blog networks give IT executives invaluable opportunities to network, improve company operations, learn from other thought leaders and become thought leaders themselves.
But the transparent, real-time nature of social media can be daunting. New channels seem to crop up every other week, and real PR disasters can result from the wrong kind of exposure. Even the savviest social media users are still charting their course in these exceptionally muddied waters.
How's an IT leader to cope? The sad fact is: many aren't. According to a survey released this year by harmon.ie, a company that provides social software, only 10% of Fortune 250 CIOs are actually using social media themselves. A game-changing technology that is increasingly the communication norm for the masses is being delegated to junior staffers or ignored outright by the executives who drive tomorrow's IT ideas.
However, IT execs may be wising up to the importance of social media engagement. "I think [executive social media adoption] is steadily increasing," says Jeffrey Mann, VP for collaboration and social software at Gartner. "It's gone from 'What is this about?' or 'What does this have to do with us?' to 'How can we use it to drive innovation or break down barriers within our organization?'"
Computerworld set out to answer those questions for IT professionals looking to adopt or broaden a social media presence. Forget learning about hashtags or how to toggle your privacy settings; these are real strategies social IT leaders use every day to engage with customers, connect with industry leaders, manage internal operations and improve the company bottom line.
In short, these tips can help you go from IT executive to IT social media star.
Tap into the social information network
"When you jump in [to social media], you really need to have a clear definition of why you're jumping in," says Mike Capone, corporate vice president and CIO at Automatic Data Processing. "Otherwise it just becomes another channel of things coming at you."
One great reason to jump in is to find information about the markets, businesses, technologies and ideas that matter to you. Services like LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ provide massive, open and free repositories of information shared between people looking to solve each other's problems. The executives we talked to mine social sites for links, commentary and connections that facilitate conversations -- all in real time as research is released and market trends take shape.
- Join LinkedIn groups and Twitter threads that interest you.
- Follow or connect with those who reflect your interests.
- Track prominent voices in these online forums and consider networking with them.
"I use Twitter not just as a source of communication, but as a source of information. It's a walking encyclopedia," says Gina Tomlinson, CTO for the City and County of San Francisco. According to Tomlinson, that kind of information is power -- and it comes from people.
"My advice would be to follow first and let it organically grow," says Mike Rodger, director of digital innovation for Delta Hotels and Resorts. "Sign up, start tracking [topics] and following people. Find other like-minded individuals. The beauty of these social media channels is that you can see who those people are following" and follow them in turn to grow your network.
Rodger does just that to keep abreast of developments in the hospitality and IT sectors, while tracking consumers' responses to Delta's latest projects. Even if you're not putting your personal thoughts out in the ether, you can leverage social media to learn the thoughts of others who are. And once you do that, you might just want to start making your own waves.
When you're an individual IT pro developing a social media presence, authenticity and personality matter. Promoting and protecting your brand and company are big concerns, but ones that are best left to your marketing and PR teams. More important, our experts say, is to share your technology passions, problems and expertise. Far from a liability, this sort of transparency can be an asset.
"It does not show weakness. It does not show vulnerability. It shows that you have an openness and a willingness to learn, share and network," says Tomlinson. "Giving yourself that level of transparency, it actually strengthens your organization."
ADP's Mike Capone says he goes out of his way to encourage other executives to forgo sales pitches on social media sites. "I don't use LinkedIn to try to knock down doors for sales. I want social and LinkedIn to be a safe space," he says. "I don't ever want [connections] to feel threatened like I'm trying to sell them something."
That kind of no-pressure authenticity separates the stars from the wannabes. For real results, give real feedback. Tomlinson does so often when it comes to the projects her department executes. She shares information, successes and, yes, problems she's encountering debuting new initiatives.
"What we're finding is that a lot of the initiatives we're taking on are not so unique; they are initiatives that others have tried and failed or tried and succeeded," Tomlinson says. She then uses that sort of honest feedback to do her job better and help others do the same.
- Engage on an information-sharing level; no sales pitches or empty schmoozing.
- Don't be afraid to expose the challenges you're facing or ask for help.
Chances are, other executives out there are facing problems similar to your own. Authentic, honest engagement with them produces exponential returns, as they'll not only help you with your problems, but tap your expertise for theirs.
And don't hand off social communications to subordinates, Tomlinson adds. "Social media personalizes you in a way. Delegating it to your staff to communicate your passions and your vulnerabilities, I think it lessens the value."
That said, anyone using social media site for professional engagement would do well to share strongly held religious, political and social views only with a smaller circle of friends and family.
Lead the way
Of course, social media doesn't stop outside company walls. Many executives are struggling with the question of how to handle social media inside the organization.
While some companies may be tempted to simply block employees' social media use or certain types of engagement, that's not the answer for most, says Malcolm Harkins, a vice president and chief information security officer at Intel. Because social media has become such a norm for communication, he reasons that people will find a way to engage in it no matter what. "You've got to run to the risk to shape the risk," he says.
That mentality is shared among many IT leaders. Social media is here, whether we like it or not. To best maximize its potential, savvy executives would be wise to engage it intelligently to minimize the dangers.
In fact, forward-thinking executives are leveraging the power of social networking to improve internal as well as external communications. In San Francisco, Tomlinson and her team use Twitter to communicate with the city's citizens, while Yammer, the enterprise social network recently purchased by Microsoft, is used for employee communications.
"We utilize social media to communicate outages [and] maintenance windows and to update employees during our day-to-day operations" -- all in real time, she says. (You can follow the San Francisco's tweets at @sfgov and Tomlinson's at @GGUP4.)
For Tomlinson, that strengthens both her own professional position and that of her organization by helping San Francisco city workers leverage massive communication power -- without an unwieldy infrastructure that would torpedo the IT budget. It also makes her and her team more responsive, since everyone can update one another (and citizens) from wherever in the city problems are occurring.
- Little things matter: Comments and basic engagement with employees go a long way.
- Sharing humanizes you in the eyes of your staff.
- Smart engagement minimizes risks; avoidance does not.
Executive participation in internal social media is key, says Gartner's Mann: "One of the really big motivators is if the CIO or even the CEO drops a comment on a blog. That shows that senior management is participating and watching."
Internally, Harkins and his team use blogs and wikis to communicate with others at Intel. The constant interaction between Harkins and his team ensures that he's always on top of what's going on -- and his team has direct access to him, if need be. Externally, Harkins says, he uses popular social media websites (he declined to specify which), reaching out to industry connections and work groups in his field. Social media strengthens his organization, he says, by publicizing, both to the company and its customers, just how hard his team works to improve operations.
Over at ADP, Mike Capone regularly writes for an internal blog that reaches more than 5,000 employees, giving his thoughts on strategy, new ideas and company happenings. The top boss at ADP has adopted social media communications too, he notes.
"Our CEO, who was recently promoted to the chair, has embraced it. He's making himself known to the population by talking about his transition, what he's doing and places he's visiting," says Capone. "It's much more human than the standard executive communication protocol that [leaders] used to follow."
There are always risks when using social media, but those risks shouldn't discourage you from putting yourself out there. Most of the time, social engagement, whether inside or outside the company, can be deep, fulfilling and valuable.
"In this age, transparency is the norm," says Tomlinson. "You can't just sit behind your desk and hide and just do your job. Get in front of it and get ahead of it before you become victim to it."
Logan Kugler is a frequent Computerworld contributor. His most recent article was " Tech guns for hire: 5 places to find skilled IT contractors."
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