Window on WANs

Jun 24 2009   6:20PM GMT

Social computing goes enterprise mainstream

Tim Scannell Profile: TScannell

Imagine holding an Olympic high diving event where there wasn’t a drop of water to be found. Or, a professional baseball game with no bases, bats or (gasp!) cold beer! That is a little what it’s like today at the Enterprise 2.0 conference and social networking gathering taking place this week at the four-star Westin Boston Hotel, adjacent to the sprawling Boston Convention Center.

As vendors, users and Twitterati experts talked about the latest developments and trends in social networking and collaborative software, attendees in the audience had to deal with little or no WiFi access and signal strength that was as bashful as a freshman at a senior dance. WiFi signal were bouncing all over the hotel lobby (where I am writing this blog), but couldn’t seem to penetrate the meeting rooms where people Twittered and tweeted in vain.

This didn’t stop speakers at the event from expounding about the benefits of social computing to the enterprise – a claim that was backed up with a lot of concrete examples from heavyweight companies like Allstate Insurance, the Humana health services organization, and JetBlue airlines. Many companies are pretty early into social computing, with most involved in pilot projects and efforts that are happening outside the sphere of IT and the corporate network. But, nearly every company making a presentation at Enterprise 2.0 agreed the technology will have a profound impact on the corporate technology structure and strategies over the next five to ten years.


Allstate Life Insurance, for example, established a “Good Hands Community” portal that targets past and current customers, providing tools to help consumers through these tough economic times and get a grip on things like financial planning, says Ben Foster, strategy and content manager at Allstate. Okay, he admits the social computing effort is also designed to drive sales, but everybody has to make a buck these days and if consumers can collaborate and share ideas in the process then all the better.

JetBlue, which has always prided itself on being a people-centric airline with a very different approach to the business, started a Twitter effort a while back in response to a minor PR crisis involving an ice storm, suddenly cancelled flights and very irate customers. The incident was definitely ‘act of God’ stuff, but JetBlue took a hit in terms of its PR, so decided to go straight to the people with a regular steam of tweets that provide updated weather and service information as well as a vital link to the traveling masses. At last count, the JetBlue Twitter account had 619,789 followers, notes internal social computing guru Morgan Johnston.

JetBlue’s Twitter foray is definitely a work in progress, he notes, but provides a number of important services to the company and its customer base, including:

  • Real-time monitoring of customer kudos and complaints;
  • The ability to instantly engage and respond to customers (which builds brand loyalty and helps prevent small problems from mushrooming into larger and more public problems);
  • A platform for instantly zapping out information to a large and in many cases mobile base of subscriber customers;
  • Continued ‘humanization’ of the company, by encouraging more access and communications with airline workers and corporate bigwigs (many of whom, Johnston points out, are devoted Twitter users).
  • Humana accepts all of these benefits as important to overall success of any social computing effort, although healthcare providers have to be more aware of the impact these technologies have on compliance and privacy issues given the restrictions placed on the industry. “Social media is important to an industry that badly needs to transform,” says Greg Matthews, who heads up these initiatives at the health benefits company, and previously spent about 17 years on the HR side of the fence. However, Humana’s social computing efforts currently lie well outside the realm of the group’s WAN, LANs and other networks.

    The social site launched by the company is designed to be more of a freeform platform for exchanging ideas and concepts that might eventually restructure the entire company and healthcare industry. Only one or two ideas out of ten might make the jump to actual products or services, but that’s okay, says Matthews. The point is to have a platform to collaborate, exchange thoughts and engage everyone in the company in the revamping of healthcare.

    “We grew up thinking technology has to be accepted, but this thinking has transformed over the past year,” he added. Now, “we think how we can make technology work for us rather than accept what we are given.”

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