The proliferation of social technologies gives modern organisations an opportunity to create new types of conversations both inside and outside the walls of the business.
But the potential benefits of social technology can easily be lost in the cacophony of marketing hype and irrelevant chatter. And in such an environment, it can be a tough sell to convince the C-suite team of the benefits of social media.
Ian Cohen, group CIO of global insurance specialist Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT), has spent the past year developing the Insight programme - a project that aims to give employees new ways to collaborate using social media-style technologies.
"What we'll see is a whole new global conversation and that's at the heart of our social enterprise," he says. Here, Cohen looks back on progress so far and provides four key stages for CIOs looking to create a successful social enterprise.
Stage 1. Start listening
CIOs must consider how the business can connect with customers, colleagues and partners to get a deeper insight into their needs. "Your approach has to be strategic, so that executives understand the value of capturing client information at source, rather than as an afterthought," says Cohen.
"You also have to create the internal environment where your colleagues are happy to converse and share their ideas and opportunities," he adds. CIOs must remember, however, that the implementation of such tools is not an end in itself: technology should support, rather than lead, the conversations.
"There are new conversations happening and they are creating new information flows. Your transactional systems will give you the past tense view, but you need to be part of the dialogue to get the current and potentially future tense view," says Cohen.
As he began investigating opportunities associated to the social enterprise last year, Cohen analysed the types of conversations taking place in his firm, both with clients and between employees. He drew on such collaborative evidence to think about how relationships could drive the creation of the social enterprise.
"It became clear that true social transformation is much more than simply installing a piece of software," says Cohen. "Social change is enabled by technology but the real business benefits come from the way collaboration changes people's attitudes and behaviours."
Stage 2. Interpret and simplify
Cohen says CIOs must then work hard to bring insight to the data that has been collected. "Data analysis has become a costly black art, with too many people asking too many complicated questions," he says. "They key nowadays is to simplify, visualise and interpret."
Data analysis can be an expensive process. It can also be a self-perpetuating task, as one complicated and unanswerable questions leads to further queries. "Meeting business outcomes relies on asking simple questions and providing answers quickly," says Cohen.
JLT has implemented QlikView business intelligence technology, an in-memory analytics system that does not rely on huge data warehouses and which offers information visualisation and manipulation, often in real time.
"In-memory analytics allows us to go right to the source of the information without complex sub-systems and data models," says Cohen.
"It creates simple, visual representations from which our executives can ask basic killer questions about their lines of business. If you simplify the questions, you often get much more useful answers and ones that will drive other powerful conversations.
"Leave the detailed analysis to the analyst boffins. You'll still need them, but in-memory analytics gets the conversation started earlier."
Stage 3. Think like a publisher
As well as being a financial IT expert, Cohen has led technology for some of the world's largest media brands, including Associated Newspapers and the Financial Times.
The Insight programme at JLT has helped him realise that finance firms are more closely related to media businesses than might have been expected.
"We are in the knowledge business. We advise our clients on a variety of specialist insurance, benefits and risk management topics, and we create content based on the expertise of our brokers, analysts and consultants. Sure, we handle claims, renewals and process transactions, but all our competitors can do that," he says.
"Rather than just meeting up at renewal time, or during specific events, wouldn't it be better if we had an on-going dialogue with our clients that is facilitated through tailored, or industry-specific, content in order to deepen their relationship with us?"
Stage 4: Start sharing
The final stage is all about collaboration and in JLT's case has involved deploying technology that enables and supports global conversations.
Rather than having to justify spending millions of pounds on new technology, Cohen has used already-installed systems, such as Salesforce Chatter and Microsoft collaboration Lync and SharePoint, to create a platform for collaboration.
To help the conversations along, Cohen and his colleagues are also rolling out a new global search platform called SearchSpace.
"We asked our staff what was the most important thing we could do to make their lives easier, and the answer was pretty much unanimous - just help us find the expertise we need," says Cohen.
"It was an eye-opener. We're not a huge company but it can still be hard, particularly if you are in one of our regional offices, to identify our marine expert or to work out where the most recent thinking on aerospace exists. SearchSpace brings workers the information they need, so they can start the conversation."
Cohen says something special comes from being able to capture client information, to rapidly interpret that knowledge in combination with an existing transactional data, and to use a publishing mindset to distribute and share insight. Adding in an additional layer of collaboration produces powerful results.
"We have to be faster and smarter than our competitors, who are often much larger than us, and we have to harness the knowledge from across our company in new ways. That approach requires a climate of trust, both inside and outside the enterprise. The trust to share what was once considered to be owned, and the trust to know how to do that through collaboration, creates a better outcome."
Mark Samuels is a business journalist and editor at IT leadership organisation CIO Connect. He has written for various organisations, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, Guardian Government Computing and Times Higher Education.