Embracing Social Communities: A CIO's Crib Sheet

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Bob Worrall, Sun's Chief Information Officer, and my all time favorite marketing goddess, Mary Smaragdis, about how Sun builds community and enables collaboration via social networking tools. Have a look...


Social networks are everywhere — but what do they really mean to the CIO? Our experts discuss the implications, the opportunities, and the trends.

There’s no question that social networking has permeated our lives as CIOs — both on a personal front as we use these forums for communicating, and on a professional front as we put systems and policies in place to manage our organizations’ use of these communities. For my column this month, I’ve invited two social community experts within Sun to join me to discuss this phenomenon and what it means for CIOs. Mary Smaragdis, Director of Sun News Network and New and Social Media, manages Sun’s corporate activities in social media spaces, user-generated content spaces, and virtual worlds. Linda Skrocki, Sr. Engineering Program Manager for Sun's high-volume external-facing community web properties, is involved with running Sun’s high-volume Web properties.

Bob: Mary, let’s start with you. How are you defining the social community space in your role?

Mary: The social community space is about first-person conversations on the network. Within Sun’s social community spaces, people are conversing about their work and their passions around work. They use these platforms to engage their stakeholders, whether they are customers, prospects, media, or others. The network dramatically elevates these conversations so that they reach huge potential audiences.

Linda: My responsibility is to enable those conversations Mary just described. When we open up a conversation to the marketplace, we need to have the toolsets to enable it. Sun has a variety of social community participants — some are very savvy technology-wise and are comfortable with social media tools. Others aren’t. So we provide tools and training to maximize peoples’ time with these media. Social networking, blogging, and wikis aren’t for everyone all of the time. And while we have a very liberal policy, we have usage guidelines so that people learn when it’s appropriate to use a blog as opposed to a wiki, for example. Because of this safety net, employees feel comfortable having organic conversations in the marketplace — which I think has been a huge factor in our success in this space.

Bob: What guidance do you give when adoption of these tools varies based on geography, language or even age?

Mary: Social media sites like Facebook and MySpace are most well-known in the U.S., but there are dozens of social media platforms around the world. As a CIO looking to extend your conversations to these places, you’ll want to understand the equation for adoption on the different platforms in different geographies.

As for age, MySpace and Facebook started out in a younger demographic, but have moved beyond the millennials. Certainly younger age groups have been more liberal with putting their information out there. Older age groups still tend to be cautious. This is a big transition — much like email was — and people are becoming more comfortable with how it works. This is just the next evolution of communication tools — for business and social communication — and there is definitely an adoption curve across geographies and age demographics.

Bob: What are some benefits of embracing social communities in terms of engaging customers, prospects, and investors?

Linda: Wikis.sun.com has proven to be a powerful tool for Sun employees (tech writers, engineers, etc.), who are globally distributed, to collaboratively create and iterate technical and program-specific content with customers, partners, and other members of the community who share common interests.

Blogs.sun.com has been an amazing success story for Sun. One of the primary reasons is because we’ve created a set of guidelines for employees to follow, thereby keeping Sun and the employees out of trouble. Over 10% of our company is blogging. We have 4,500 bloggers who have posted 137,000 entries. Within those entries, we have 153,000 comments, which tells us that there really is a two-way conversation happening.

Another success area is forums.sun.com which is one of our oldest and biggest communities. This is where people interested in Sun products can converse and help each other. It is a community-driven environment for users to get quick answers and engage with other users who share a commonality — usage of a particular technology for example. Over 4 million messages by approximately 1 million contributors are posted there.

Mary: To add some numbers to that, in the past 12 months, Sun’s bloggers have pulled in more than 8.3 million unique visitors. Forums.sun.com has seen more than 15 million unique visitors.

Bob: Those bring home some powerful examples of how these technologies can benefit both companies and individuals. I know from my own IT staff that blogs, wikis, and forums, even Twitter, allow them to reach support groups that otherwise they may have had to pay for, so we’re certainly using these technologies to drive down costs.

Once a company has decided to engage in social communities, what are the areas a CIO needs to think about as they begin preparing their organization?

Mary: There are two areas that are critical to success. The first is determining, as an organization, if you are prepared to be good contributors. Do you have a clear understanding of what the thresholds are, what the guidelines are? Sun’s guidelines of public disclosure have been held up as a benchmark and I encourage folks to take a look. The other key area is the infrastructure itself. How is it architected? Do you build it or host it yourself or outsource?

Linda: I agree. Policy-wise, it is important to identify your risk and transparency tolerances. You must keep in mind that this is part of your brand. Identify how often you are going to participate from a time-investment standpoint and then get training and evangelism to support that. Then, you need to analyze what kind of infrastructure you want. Do you need full control over your scalability, uptime, performance, feature set, and data or can you get by with using third party provided services? Can you afford to not have full control over your data and the availability of your site? Could you afford to lose all your data if someone else controlled it and lost it?

Bob: That brings up a good point. Many people consider these tools to not have critical business value and place them in the category of “interesting.” My advice, for all the reasons just brought up, is to treat them as mission-critical business applications, if for no other reason than issues of privacy and data control.

For the average CIO, who are the key stakeholders across the company that you should get engaged with as you adopt social media strategies and policies?

Mary: Definitely your CEO, because he/she can influence the success of your program. Jonathan Schwartz set a positive tone early on with bloggers. He blogged in a very open manner and left his comments section open for folks to read. We also engaged our privacy folks as well as folks in trademarks, export, legal, and HR.

Bob: What are some common pitfalls you’ve seen?

Linda: People sometimes forget that these tools are for organic conversations — not one-way publishing platforms for contrived messaging. Trying to over-control or command the conversations of a community would be considered misuse.

Bob: What is the trajectory both for CIOs and businesses at large as they think about this space?

Mary: These trends are well-entrenched and will continue to grow in the trajectories we’ve seen. The models we have for communicating and collaborating are increasingly becoming anchored around technology. The choices CIOs make will have ever-increasing reach in terms of how future models need to be anchored. This will be the way we communicate, collaborate, exchange, and engage in commerce for a very long time.

Linda: And I would add that people need to be open to new technologies. Blogging came out and people loved it. Then micro-blogging came out. Once that happened, there was a question about whether blogging still had a place. There still is a place for those more in-depth conversations. You can only say so much in 140 characters. My advice is to be open and try the new social technologies as they come along, but don't feel compelled to use every one.

Bob: That’s terrific advice because one thing is certain — change. Twitter may be big today, but something new is around the corner. So my advice is the same — stay open to new ideas and technologies and stay abreast of what’s going on in the marketplace.

Thank you all for joining me this month. Until next time,

Bob Worrall

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Sr. Community Engineering Program Manager/Acting Director for Sun's external social networking sites (blogs, forums, wikis, etc.). Skrocki's personal blog, LinkedIn.

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