Power shift

In 2008, Forrester Research analysts Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li co-authored Groundswell, a book that explored how businesses were beginning to use social media as a marketing tool.

Described by Information Age at the time as “arguably the most comprehensive guide on how the world of commerce is being changed by social technologies”, Groundswell was a successful and influential foray for the analyst company into book publishing.

Now, Bernoff is back with a new book that expands on the thesis of Groundswell, entitled Empowered. The idea for the book, devised and written with fellow analyst Ted Schadler, came from Forrester consulting clients who had adopted social media technologies but who were struggling to manage their customer relationships appropriately.

The book makes two fundamental assertions. The first is that social media technologies give customers much greater influence over how a company’s products are perceived in the marketplace. Indeed, customers can now be seen as a marketing channel themselves, it argues.

The second assertion is that, as Bernoff puts it, “The only way to move at the speed of these empowered consumers is to empower your employees to keep up with them.” This requires processes and systems that allow employees to engage with customers through social media quickly and easily, but in such a way that is coordinated and consistent with company strategy and policy. “It’s one thing for somebody within a company to respond to a message on Twitter or Facebook,” says Bernoff. “It’s quite another for a company to design a system that allows those messages to be responded to in an organised way.”

The marketing and customer service employees who need systems such as this typically look outside the organisation, to Internet-based applications and external consultancy. The IT department, meanwhile, is often seen as a barrier to these projects. “IT’s response usually varies between benign neglect and outright blockage,” says Bernoff.

Learn to let go

The book’s message for IT leaders is that if employees are to become empowered, the IT department must resist its desire for strict control over the deployment and use of information systems, at least when it comes to social media tools. “The appropriate role for the IT department is to offer business managers technical advice, and to help them understand what they need to consider,” says Bernoff. “It’s up to the business manager whether or not to take that advice.”

He adds that this advice can only be offered on a voluntary basis, as any rule mandating that business managers consult with the IT department would not be enforceable. Likewise, the dangers associated with engaging with customers through social media – such as security or data protection breaches – must be managed through policy, not “locking down” systems and networks, Bernoff argues.

“It is entirely appropriate to say that the marketing department has to be aware of any system that touches customers, or to say, ‘Here’s what you can and can’t do if you’re using social media,’” he says. “But you can’t just block access to Twitter from the corporate network. For one thing, employees would simply access it from their phones.”

So, does this all mean that to empower employees, the IT department must let go of its own power? Bernoff says there are parallels between the adoption of social media today and of PCs during the 1980s: “When people brought PCs into the organisation, IT departments said, ‘We don’t support this.’ But eventually they saw that PCs were a good thing, and they helped standardise and support them.”

The same should be true with social media, although there is one important difference: “Most of the things that people did with PCs weren’t visible to customers, but these days, if a social media project fails, customers can see it fail.” That’s why when it comes to social media management, businesses must get their house in order sooner rather than later.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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