Social media is big news right now, of course, and no company I know of is doing more thinking about the overall business implications than IBM. If I had spare cash lying around, I’d definitely buy IBM shares because the more I’ve interacted with their clever people, the more impressed I’ve been at their insight and foresight in this space. Their “smart planet” drive has step change potential (aarrgghhh, I’m even starting to speak like them now).

Maria Azua is Vice President of Cloud Computing Enablement for IBM Enterprise Initiatives, and former vice president of Technology and Innovation for the IBM CIO Office. She is author of the book, The Social Factor: Innovate Ignite, and Win through Mass Collaboration and Social Networking, published by Pearson/IBM Press in August 2009 (Buy now from or An excerpt was recently published in Wharton’s Leadership ezine.


By Maria Azua

To succeed in our highly connected world, you’ll need to adjust your leadership skills to leverage the power of social networking. New methods of communication like instant messaging, blogs, and social networking tools have caused a fundamental reassessment of leadership styles in many organizations today.

The Social Factor is the result of my experience as vice president of Technology and Innovation at IBM. In that role I realized, for example, that traditional top-down leadership is giving way in many cases to dispersed teams of specialists who collaborate around a specific project using social networking tools, and then disband when the project ends.

This new flexible organizational model creates unprecedented opportunities and challenges. For the business leader, it demands a different communication style that includes a much lighter touch. Highly productive innovation teams in this paradigm are guided as much by peer pressure and a desire to showcase each member’s contribution, as they are by organizational status and financial rewards. In The Social Factor I explain it this way:

Traditional hierarchical structures have great value to organizations where information is controlled or consolidated at the top. Military services depend on a rigid and well-defined hierarchical structure, but dynamic market forces have forced businesses to re-think this traditional, top-down approach. Business strategists are coming to realize that hierarchical structures just don’t work as effectively in the Social Age. In the Industrial Revolution businesses focused on economies of scale, growing as fast as possible and relying on highly centralized company structures. Strategists and executives had the information required to lead the organization, and they pushed the information down to the workforce through organizational layers . . .

As businesses ‘globalized’ [however], organizational evolution quickly moved from highly centralized hierarchies to multinational structures with independent businesses empowered to optimize for local markets.

But the multinational structure has proven to have some drawbacks. The primary deficiency of this model has been the duplication of services driven by local business units optimizing for their markets, but failing to take into consideration the overall corporate financial perspective.

New collaboration and social networking tools have helped create better global perspectives. Teams collaborate across country boundaries, language differences, and cultural barriers to ensure everybody has an equal voice in the process. Social tools create a flatter, smarter, and more nimble business structure — a business structure that truly leverages the benefits of a global marketplace by integrating the power and energy of a worldwide “business crowd.”

These monumental changes, along with countless others driven by Web 2.0 technologies, call for a new approach to organizational leadership. While providing a variety of case studies in The Social Factor, along with an overview of social networking tools, my primary concern was for the business leader. In my four years as vice president of an IBM organization that included more than 120,000 social networking contributors, I came to a firm conviction that if social networking tools are used properly, they can provide immense influence and brand awareness, and be a powerful innovation engine.

Your challenge as a leader is to fully understand the capabilities and potential of social networking. You can then aggressively drive the adoption and exploitation of this proven communications paradigm for the benefit of your efforts and passions.

Barack Obama demonstrated his understanding of the power of social networking in his presidential campaign, when his team deployed a wide array of social networking tools. The campaign provided the framework and the support for this strategy, and then let individuals determine the way the tools would be used.

I interviewed Jascha Franklin-Hodge, chief technology officer of political campaign company Blue State Digital, about their use of social networking in the Obama campaign.

“[Blue State] used networking to harness ‘local power’ in the national presidential campaign,” [Franklin-Hodge said], “to maintain momentum and build excitement right up to the general election. “Rather than using social tools merely to fund-raise, Blue State quickly realized Obama was winning the money battle, so the focus shifted.”

Instead of an emphasis on fundraising, Blue State began to build the social networking tools needed to empower individual supporters. For example, Obama volunteers were able to use the resources on the Obama website to establish local organizations. These local organizations may have been as few as three or four people, or literally hundreds of people. The website allowed supporters to enter a zip code, and lists of local Obama organizations in that area (and upcoming local campaign events) were offered. If there wasn’t a local organization, the web site provided the tools to establish one. (By the date of the general election, there were over 35,000 Obama organizations across the country.) Local events like a county fair could be used as the ad hoc gathering spot for local supporters. The word could go out through the local social network to stop by the Obama table at the fair. Parties were also organized by local organizations, where the excitement and momentum could be sustained.

On the Obama Web site there were podcasts of speeches and streaming video to view or download. And most powerfully, there was a nearly seamless connection not just to the individual supporter who signed up on the Web site, but also to everyone in his or her e-mail address book. That’s right — the Obama campaign offered the option to open your address book to help you reach additional supporters.

“You could provide access to your iPhone address book,” Franklin-Hodge said, “and you could download an application that analyzed your address book by area code.” “As the campaign progressed, races were tight in certain states — the battleground states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. This application essentially searched your address book and presented you with contacts in your address book who lived in battleground states and then asked you to call them to persuade them to vote for Obama.”

In addition to giving you a list of your friends and colleagues in battleground states to call, the application also suggested a few bullet points to highlight while having the conversation.

“We realized that you can only tell people to give money or do something so many times,” Franklin-Hodge said. “They need to make their own decisions about the best way to campaign. We provided the tools they needed and then got out of their way . . . This low-touch model offered powerful synergies for the campaign.”

The Obama campaign demonstrated the flexibility of social networking tools, depending on individuals to determine how and when to best use the tools. Properly deployed, social networking tools can offer an enormous vehicle of influence to Web 2.0 leaders.

I saw first-hand the power of social networking in my role as IBM Vice President of Technology and Innovation. Other business leaders have experienced very similar results and have provided countless stories about the power of social networking.

Collaborating around wikis can be an excellent first step into the world of social networking in almost any kind of organization. Wikis allow a team to easily contribute to and receive feedback about new ideas. Wikis also serve as an excellent central repository for all relevant information about a project, and provide a way to gauge progress toward successful completion of the project.

Similarly, tweets and blogs are new tools that help individuals establish their reputation as subject matter experts and communicate their expertise to others within a community. Bloggers create links among blogs related to their interests. This interaction is an organic process in which experts relate within a “blogosphere.” Because it is rich with acknowledged experts in a particular field, the blogosphere becomes a fantastic source of information for individuals as well as businesses. Along with wikis and blogs, other social networking tools like LinkedIn and Facebook provide powerful communication and collaboration tools that can financially reward those who know how to use them.

Recent experience of leaders demonstrates that you don’t need to be part of Generation X or a “Millennial” to succeed with social networking tools. Historically, in fact, the most productive years of a person’s life are between 40 and 60 years of age. Leaders in these age groups realize that new approaches like social networking can help them achieve their personal and professional goals. This is one of the reasons social networking tools are now accepted across generations. These tools are increasingly being used to find jobs, increase business awareness and connect with people we might never have connected with before.

Perhaps not since the days when Henry Ford perfected the assembly line has such a powerful concept as social networking come on the scene to drive innovation and create a significant competitive advantage. You can now leverage social tools to stimulate creative minds within the company, to help produce new products or services, or to take current offerings to the next level.

Finally, don’t forget that we are all social creatures. In The Social Factor I talk about the “social brain” that is a part of each of us. It drives our behavior, and social networking provides the perfect opportunity to exploit this untapped resource to encourage innovation and increase productivity.

Social networking tools and new collaboration tools are essential to effective leadership in the social age. Using social networking venues, employees will be more effective, and customers will provide you the feedback you need to meet their expectations and make improvements that will beat the competition.

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