Facebook and Twitter: One CIO's drive to open up to social media

Interview: Co-op Financial Services' Jim Slack discusses the benefits of social media on the brand...

...finance firms can use social media to make a positive difference.

Finance firms are often associated with negative aspects, such as overdrafts and debt. And it would be reasonable to assume that a bank would not be most consumers' choice for a most-loved brand.

Such negative perceptions have been bolstered in recent times, where consumer confidence in finance organisations has taken a battering in the wake of the global economic downturn. But Slack believes the potential for social media to create a positive difference is particularly large in the case of CFS.

Social media's power to boost the brand

A quick visit to the Co-operative corporate website shows the organisation's brand is closely associated with terms such as friendly, ethical, social and sustainable. It is a perception that has been carefully crafted. And Slack believes the mutual nature of the business, and its ownership by six million consumers, provides a great foothold for future growth.

"It's unlikely that anyone would normally choose to 'Like' a bank on Facebook," says Slack. "But the Co-op is different. We offer a compelling, ethical alternative. Consumers would tick a 'like' box for the Co-op. That potential means that, even as a finance firm, we shouldn't be scared of social media. We should actually be aggressive."

As a connected CIO, Slack has worked hard to prove the potential of social media to the business. Working as the internal champion for social media at CFS, Slack is encouraging the growth of online collaboration in three areas.

First, employees are being given the opportunity to use social media on a personal basis. "We are now seeing a generation entering the workplace who love using social media. We shouldn't ban social tools, we should embrace them," he says.

Second, if workers become connected through personal use of social media, the finance firm should find ways to use such connections for business purposes. Finally, Slack is looking at external collaboration and finding ways to ensure customer interaction, and experience, is boosted through social technologies.

Selling social media concept to senior colleagues

Enacting the programme has not been easy. Like other engaged CIOs, Slack has had to prove the potential benefit of social media to other senior colleagues. It is not always an easy sell.

"Most executives value long hours and physical presence," he says. "There's a generation gap and senior people often think that being on social media is simply a waste of time."

Slack took time to break down negative connotations. He points to a monthly innovation meeting at CFS, where he was given 20 minutes to try to show the promise of social media.

Before speaking, executives raised the spectre of social media being yet another work distraction. Ten minutes in, and after showing how social media could be used to enhance customers' existing perceptions of the Co-op brand, sceptics were won over.

"By the end of the meeting, social media was already receiving a momentum that would prove difficult to stop," remembers Slack, who says he has now lit the blue touchpaper for the organisation's use of social media.

Ideas from the innovation session were later moved forward to the strategy team. At a group-wide level, executives are now thinking about how the use of collaboration can be pushed forward. Slack says potential targets include an internal Facebook-like system for connectivity and knowledge exchange.

Balance between social media benefits and security

However, such energy must be carefully channelled and managed. The positive potential of collaboration must be balanced against security and data leakage fears, particularly for a financial services firm that would face severe censure in the event of any problems.

"CIOs are beginning to embrace social media but their techniques for adoption are often defensive," he says. "We have a cautious appetite for risk but I am trying to challenge that guarded approach. Let's find a way to ask how we can embrace social media, rather than saying we simply can't touch it."

And as Slack reasserts, the potential benefits of a positive social media strategy could be great. "We have a super brand and we could use social media to leverage the power," he says, referring to wider organisational aims to boost customer membership to upwards of 20 million consumers by 2020.

"We need to be aggressive with social media because what we do is great. We're open, professional and ethical - the potential for social media to create positive change for the Co-op brand is incredible."

By Mark Samuels

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.