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CIOs: Stop Ignoring Social Media Wed 03 Mar 10

CIOs and IT leaders need to promote social media or risk becoming marginalized.

Social_media_iconsI recently attended a panel discussion of four CIOs put on by a major IT research firm and found the exchange on social media interesting. In addition to the CIO of the research firm, there was representation by both the private and public sector.

The moderator asked if the panelists allowed open access to social media sites and if they had a policy in place governing the use of social media. I was pleased to hear all of the panelists respond "yes" to both.

There appeared to be general consensus that appropriate employee use of social media is really a supervisory issue more than a technology issue, and that a good acceptable-use policy is helpful in providing guidelines to employees on how to use social media without jeopardizing the company. Judging by the audience reaction, there seemed to be widespread agreement.

I asked, "I was encouraged by your answers on open access and the need to set guidelines, but this is a rather passive approach to social media. How is your company using social media to improve communication to and between employees and also to interact with your customers?"

After a very pregnant silence, the research firm's CIO mentioned analysts' blogs, and a second CIO indicated that her company is looking at various ways the blogs could be used but hadn't yet decided what to do.

This lack of engagement with social media is not all that unusual. Bill Chamberlin recently reviewed how IT leaders use social media and reported the results on his blog "2009 CIO Award Winners Are Not Embracing Social Media".  Chamberlin conducted online searches of 10 IT leaders honored as "leaders and change agents" and 25 senior IT staffers honored as "rising stars" and destined to be the future CIOs. I found the results rather saddening.

Chamberlin reports, "Of the 35 award winners, I could find no evidence that anyone was blogging or commenting on others blogs. Only two of these award winners have Twitter IDs and both of them are not actively using Twitter. It was encouraging to find that 29 out of the 35 did have profiles set up on LinkedIn, however, most of those profiles were lacking content. I found less than half of them were on Facebook."

The following day Chamberlin tried a different approach, doing a general search for IT leaders actively using social media, and found 65! Hardly a large number in the whole universe of IT leaders.

Arguably both Chamberlin's and my observation reflect that social media really isn't dependent on CIOs or IT in general. Social media exists in the cloud; other than providing access, IT really isn't needed. In addition, IT could claim that its job is to only provide the tools and that it is up to users to figure out what do with them. Figuring out ways for employees to communicate and collaborate or for a company to interact with customers hasn't historically been IT's strong suit.

This complacency is dangerous. Think ahead to the time when someone publicly exposes confidential company information via social media, or it is discovered that various groups using social media are promoting different and conflicting messages to your customers. Do you really think the CEO will be impressed by your argument that you had nothing to do with it? She is likely to say, "That's exactly the problem! Where were you?"

One of IT's roles is to be a promoter of technology. This evangelism role not only creates new opportunities for our companies, but it keeps us involved and gives us the opportunity to make sure the right corporate governance is in place. While some might also argue that there is no business value to social media, I believe that this is a very short-sighted and unimaginative belief.

What is so disappointing about Chamberlin's analysis is that CIOs can't possibly understand how to use social media if they've never really used it. You can't lead from the rear.

Ignoring social media won't make it go away. Our employees will use it for both personal and company purposes. The question is whether or not we want to be involved in seeing that it is used properly and that the proper governance model exists to both protect and benefit the company.

Sitting idly, we will soon find ourselves marginalized when it comes to the use of social media in the corporate world. Our role will become one of cleaning up the mess that "we let happen" while letting a good opportunity slip away due to poor execution and governance that we didn't want to be bothered with. True IT leaders will get out in front of this before it's too late--if it isn't already.

"Free-to-use Social Media Icon set" photo courtesy of  mr-mojo-risin

This article is also posted on Forbes.com.  Feel free to join in the discussion either on this site or at Forbes.com

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