The latest tech tool? People power.

November 9, 2009: 9:30 AM ET

How social networking can transform the CIO into a superhero

By Alan S. Cohen, vice president enterprise, Cisco

Alan Pic

Workers unite! Cohen says social networks can empower employees. Photo: Cisco

I recently spent a few days with 100 of Cisco's (CSCO)  top customers, Chief Information Officers (CIOs), representing a range of industries – private and public and geographies. These folks are often the unsung heroes of  their organizations, enabling employees to perform great technological feats while helping management wring huge cost savings from their budgets.

During our time together, the conversations focused on how work has changed: from local to global, from centralized to decentralized, and increasingly, from live to asynchronous or even virtual.

In the past 20 to 30 years, our customers' organizations have invested tens of billions of dollars in transaction systems – from ERP to email – to reduce latency and inefficiency in value chains. This considerable investment underpins the heart of the "Six Sigma," process-driven revolution that became the ultimate strategy for operational excellence. However, today we've reached the zenith of transactional gains.

So, from where is the next wave of innovation and productivity emerging? Allow me to posit a simple answer: from people.

For most companies, people represent an untapped asset – a resource that becomes especially important for companies that must grow their business without adding personnel.

This means that corporations must design a cognitive stimulus plan based on employee contributions, and business must embrace some admittedly unusual notions about how, where and when work occurs, and how employees collaborate. Some of these notions recently arrived from the Web 2.0, social networking realm.

There is definitely something going on at Facebook: you do not add a subscriber base the size of the United States in a few years unless there are benefits to the community (Facebook added over 50 thousand new users in the time it took me to write this blog).

The sea of changing perspective on social networking struck me during our CIO conclave. Some call it social computing. We at Cisco simply call it collaboration.  Our customers recognize the critical nature of social networking as a component of collaborative business processes.

But collaboration in the workplace also requires careful integration and regulation to enable success.

No one advocates that employees post personal pictures of weekend activities in lieu of working. It is time, though, to recognize that community is at the heart of teaming and teaming is at the heart of workplace collaboration.  And collaboration is where we find innovation and operational excellence, by tapping into knowledge at the source: from one functional group to another; from one business unit to another; and from one company to another – as partners in a distributed valued chain.

We need variety, a notion at odds with the predictability advocated by Six Sigma.  Actually, in his speech on "consistency," Mark Twain effectively made this case:

"I am persuaded that the word has been tricked into adopting some false and most pernicious notions about consistency – and to such a degree that the average man has turned the rights and wrongs of things entirely around and is proud to be "consistent," unchanging, immovable, fossilized, where is should be his humiliation."

To be sure, for social networks to become the next great tool in the CIO's daring arsenal, they need to evolve. They need to be secure. They need to integrate into corporate information systems. They need to support work processes that deliver business results.

Collaborative social networking would benefit from rich voice and video systems, something that current consumer offerings lack. Often, a text message does not contain enough context.

Finally, management needs to view collaborative social networking differently.  As Morten T. Hansen notes, in his excellent new book, Collaboration, they must oversee the adoption process and change culture to achieve positive results.

To some degree, every aspect of information technology is in transition: cloud, virtualization, collaboration, and consumerization. CEOs want more and CFOs want to spend less. I could go on and on with challenges for the CIO. But what about the people who actually use all this technology, day after day, to get their jobs done?  What are they telling us about how they want to work?

The millennials, the largest presence in the workforce, are already "black belts" in virtual communications and collaboration.

Is the new CIO super power enterprise social networking? Or is social networking the kryptonite? I see a cape in the sky. (A bird? A plane? A CIO!)

Cohen is vice president, enterprise, at Cisco Systems, the San Jose, Calif.-based maker of networking equipment.

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