Social Business: Beyond Trickle-Down Social Media

At their Connect 2013 conference, IBM highlighted a growing body of research and client examples that demonstrate that companies adopting a social approach to business have the advantage in the marketplace (see related infographic). Their designation “social business” means incorporating social behavior into business execution to improve all aspects from product development through marketing, sales and support.  It includes collaboration with and among employees, suppliers, distributors, and especially customers across the span of a company’s processes.  The result is a company that is more in tune with customers, more agile at bringing expertise together to meet their needs, and more adept at growing relationships with every participant.
 
So, isn’t this just social media?  I was initially skeptical that this is just commercial repackaging.  However, this notion of social fused into the breadth of company operations stretches beyond what I’ve typically seen proposed as “social media,” especially in the business-to-business (B2B) arena where Caterpillar competes.  What seems most common is that we begin with the media (e.g., Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter) and then begin the search for business relevance.  Usually, initial adoption is in business-to-consumer (B2C) markets, followed lethargically by B2B.  I heard from a research analyst just last week that B2B is still lagging B2C in digital by as much as 5 years.  Egads!  Maybe it’s this paradigm of starting with the media.
 
With strong leadership by Kevin Espinosa, Caterpillar’s Social Media Manager, we’ve moved beyond a trickle-down social media approach at Caterpillar (see Kevin’s blog).  We’ve begun to integrate social into our core business, moving from early experimentation to extending our existing processes with social tools.  As one example, our customer contact center is now incorporating online communities (especially Facebook, Twitter and discussion forums) into customer support, listening to customers, responding to their questions and concerns, and connecting them with appropriate Caterpillar and Cat dealer experts.
 
Still, as I peer back into a Caterpillar supply chain of nearly 4000 suppliers and across our Caterpillar and dealer base of over 250,000 employees, the vast majority of our business is largely undisturbed by social media.  Which isn’t to say that Caterpillar isn’t a social company.  Relationships are the cornerstone of our business success and we’ve moved mountains (literally) one handshake, one phone call, and one email at a time.
 
Our challenge now, one that I think is shared by most companies, is to rethink how we can meaningfully and profitably engage customers, employees and partners using social approaches.  Social media as an add-on has been an important step.  I think IBM has it right in framing social business as the key that unlocks the next level of performance.  For B2B companies like Caterpillar this holds the promise of a shift in social strategy, moving from trickle-down to transformation.

Are today’s social media strategies for business going far enough?  If not, how can companies begin to shift their efforts from social media to social business?

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