Is Social IT Really Worth It?

March 05, 2013
by Matthew Selheimer

It’s no question that social media has become a significant and useful part of many people’s personal and professional lives.

There have been studies at organizations like McKinsey & Company and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University that have made claims about the value of social media concepts applied to today’s knowledge workers as well. McKinsey believes that we can see as much as 20-25% improvement in knowledge worker productivity and Northwestern claims that we are moving to a “collaboration economy” that will enable people, teams, and companies to more effectively focus their activities on creating value and driving profitability.

We know this implicitly - when people get together to share, combine ideas, and challenge one another, we not only learn from others and can leverage that in our own work but inspiration and new ideas are born.

So what about applying these concepts to IT organizations? What’s the real value of Social IT? Will this just be a flash in the pan until we move on to the next claimed “breakthrough”? In other words, is Social IT really worth it, such that it will actually stick around and become part of the fabric of how we manage IT as a discipline?

The answer to this question, put simply, is an emphatic “Yes!” To explain why, let me first explain what Social IT is because there’s been lots of dialogue but very little definition of what it means out there. Next, I will clearly explain the value of Social IT, both in concept and by referencing actual companies that are doing it. Finally, I will explain why Social IT is here for good and why that’s a very good thing for our industry.

What is Social IT?

So what is Social IT? In a sentence, Social IT is the ability for IT professionals to capture, share and leverage knowledge through the use of Wikipedia-style crowd-sourcing and Twitter or Facebook-style news feeds. Social IT is further characterized by the enhancement of traditional IT management processes with in-context collaboration to improve efficiency and accuracy of IT decision-making and actions.

Some, including a number of IT management tool vendors, have applied a more narrow definition of Social IT to only relate to the use of social media applications or concepts to improve communications between IT professionals and end users. For example, monitoring user postings on Twitter or Facebook to understand what their real perceptions are of the services IT is delivering and then engaging with users when they identify issues or concerns. Or the use of IT department Twitter or Facebook accounts to post IT service status and announcements.

For sure these activities do have benefits – knowing more about how some of your more vocal users feel about the quality of IT service delivery can provide useful insights, provide you with the opportunity to turn negative posters into positive influencers by targeting them and ensuring they are receiving good service, and being proactive in providing status on major outages or new services can positively influence user satisfaction scores.

But if this was all there was to Social IT, then I’d be skeptical about the value and long-term use too. This type of an approach to Social IT is merely an add-on to existing IT management approaches. As such, its scope is limited and so is its value.

There are also risks from such approaches. We can all think of examples of Twitter horror stories where tweets have been sent from corporate accounts to the embarrassment (or worse) of their companies. Setting proper communication policies and training IT professionals on how to use social media applications like Twitter or Facebook is crucial to ensuring you do more good than harm with these types of Social IT add-on approaches.

The Great IT Secret

But there is a more fundamental transformation that Social IT is bringing about in a number of IT organizations that goes far beyond the add-on approach. These organizations have chosen to adopt Social IT by embedding it into their day-to-day work. They are using it not simply to improve end user interactions but to fundamentally change how they view their IT environment and make decisions.

There is a great secret in IT that everyone knows, but the rest of the business doesn’t: Our IT environments, so critical to the ongoing execution of business in nearly every industry today, have grown so complex that there is no single individual in any company of any size that has a complete understanding of a key business service or application and everything that is necessary to run it and govern it.

Walk into any IT department and ask someone to describe a key business application and all that is necessary to run it and govern it, and they will immediately go to a whiteboard and start drawing the application and its dependencies. Why is this the case? Because the most current and accurate information about the application actually resides in this person’s head, not in a CMDB, not in a Visio diagram, not in a document on a file server or SharePoint site.

And if there are other people in the room, they will chime in or walk up to the whiteboard themselves to fill in additional details that the first person likely missed because they either forgot them or those elements just aren’t relevant to his/her role.

This reality presents huge problems for IT organizations. First, it means that when something does go wrong, there is no current, accurate view of the application and its environments that exists to leverage. Teams have to get on conference calls, get caught up in long email threads, and use other patchwork approaches to piece together the current state of the environment and get everyone on the same page before they can even start to work the issue.

Second, when IT needs to plan a change, it’s nearly impossible to understand all the potential impacts and identify who the right stakeholders are to include in the change planning process.

As a result, there are still far too many IT changes that result in unintended consequences for the business. These same lack of visibility and stakeholder identification challenges causes recurring problems to take forever to resolve, means requests aren’t handled in the most efficient manner and by the right experts, and more. Simply put, IT suffers from a chronic visibility and collaboration problem that manifests itself in many of the complaints you hear from business users and executives today, “IT is slow, IT is too unreliable, IT is too costly.”

Gaining Real Value from Social IT

Now, I am not about to claim that Social IT will cure all these ills through technology alone. Rather, what we are going to see is that the technologies that enable Social IT principles will drive behavioral change in IT organizations.

These next generation tools will give those with altruistic tendencies the ability to capture, share, and leverage knowledge, and they will compel those with less altruistic tendencies to join in as well because they will seek to correct others to demonstrate their knowledge and experience.

With this enhanced understanding of our environments, IT will be more informed, and will always have a more accurate and up-to-date view of relationships, dependencies, and knowledge than it does today. This will shorten the time to catch others up on the current state of the environment when working major incidents, and will drive down the mean-time-to-know (MTTK) component of MTTR so that we can store service faster.

It will ensure that all consequences of changes are known in advance, including each and every stakeholder who needs to be involved in the planning process.

It will help us to uncover and reduce the number of potential root-causes to our recurring problems.

It will help us to execute request fulfillment faster, and provide a mechanism to capture ideas for improving many other IT processes by capturing the challenges and recommendations “in the heat of the moment” vs. in “post mortems” when memories are already starting to fade.

This isn’t just hopeful conjecture. We are seeing this already in early adopter IT departments across industries today. One company I know of reports that they have reduced the number of changes with unintended consequences by 70%.

This same company also reports that they can take a new IT employee and get them to full productivity 50% faster, because that new employee can acquire the tribal knowledge of the IT organization so much more efficiently through Social IT.

Another company states that they can now provide a much more consistent high quality of end user support because they are more effectively sharing knowledge across technicians to fill in the gaps in particular areas of expertise.

Yet another company says that they are seeing improved service stability and performance.

And yet another company says that they are getting back at least an hour a week of productivity per IT staff member. That adds up to more than a week a year that each and every person in IT can apply to other work that is sitting on the back burner right now. This is real value, big value that you can build a business case around.

Let me close by stating the five reasons why Social IT is not only going to be around for years to come, but why it is essential that you get going now:

1. The only way to keep up is to capture human knowledge and put it to work

2. Your IT teams and stakeholders expect you to be social savvy

3. Social IT paves the way to innovation by greasing the wheels of collaboration

4. Social IT offers the best way to preserve critical knowledge when staff move on

5. You need Social IT to leverage IT for competitive advantage

To come full circle from where this article started, if you are still viewing Social IT as only about IT and end user communications, you are missing the big picture of how Social IT will transform the way we manage IT. Start thinking about how Social IT can improve knowledge-sharing and cross-IT collaboration, how it can breathe new life and new efficiencies into stagnant processes, and how it can provide the most accurate visibility into your IT complexity. If you do that, I hope you will agree that Social IT is not only worth it, but is here to stay.

ABOUT Matthew Selheimer

Matthew Selheimer is VP of Marketing at ITinvolve, responsible for all aspects of marketing including: corporate and product positioning; social media; demand generation; direct and online marketing; media and analyst relations, thought leadership; and internal communications. A 17-year industry veteran, Selheimer has rich and diverse experience spanning enterprise business applications, IT management software, data center hardware and consulting. Previously, he held executive marketing and product management positions at BMC Software, as well as sales, business development, alliance management, systems engineering, and consulting positions at Informatica Corporation, Compaq Computer, and Deloitte & Touche.