After being caught calling myself a social media expert during the BBC Radio 5 Live Pods and Blogs program this morning, I’d better explain what I’ve been up to. Having stumbled into digital communication in the 80’s, I was always captivated by the ability of technology to change things. In the 90’s I was able to play a part in building intranets that really did change how businesses operated, from car manufacturers like Renault and Volvo, to big banks in Asia and the US.

Something happened along the way, and I think that something may well have been email. Business went from information islands to an open sea of information. Then the sea turned to jets of water. Intranet’s dried up, as communication went from the intranet to email. The open sea became a mass of droplets, as staff retreated to their solitary inboxes, and closed point-to-point emails.

With intranets came extranets, and the idea of things being “inside” the firewall and “outside” the firewall. Deep inside the IT bunker phrases like “demilitarised zone” started to echo around. Information security thinking crept into marketing, and PR, as organisations started to talk about “controlling” and “timing” information flows.

Planning is all well and good, and control has its place, but businesses are ultimately about doing things, and doing them now. Outside of the corporate walls, people are sharing information like never before. News flows in real-time, from Iranian cyber war to Surrey swine flu. Its spread follows people’s social networks more closely than it follows fibre optics. It is granular, relevant and real-time. The corporate world has fallen behind the consumer world, but now it is time to catch up.

Deploying social technology inside of a business opens up the communications channels again. During deployments in recent years, I keep seeing that unless the external communication and internal communication are addressed at a strategic level, many of the benefits of an efficient, collaborative work style is lost. There’s certainly still a benefit, but it’s like driving with the hand brake on.

I’ve been searching for people with the same sense, and with the vision and skills to drive with the hand brake off. Having a “social media strategy” is all very well, but it often results in “bolt on” activity, with little return, and little benefit towards the strategic direction of the business. “Using social media strategically” is something different. Picking points of engagement, within the company’s strategic operations, when the tools will provide the best return. Social media is more than “one” thing. It is multifaceted and multi-skilled. It links internal and external, bringing the “publics” together, in a world were “personal” and “business” are increasingly blurred.

Given that the tools are about collaboration, it makes sense that collaboration should be the tool to help people get to grips with them. Imagine combining people-centric technology skills with those of an award-winning internal communications agency and a specialist PR and digital media agency. I have been imagining it for a while, and I have to say that the reality is even more exciting than I thought it would be.

With collaboration, innovation and stakeholder engagement high on the business agenda, there is an increasing sense of urgency for businesses to embrace the opportunities offered by Web 2.0 and social media tools. One-third of executives recognise the importance of social networking by ensuring it is part of their business and operations strategy1. Yet a key block for business leaders and managers is a lack of strategic knowledge to analyse the business case for Web 2.0 and, moreover, ensure that the right social media tools are chosen to deliver on a company’s communications objectives.

1. Source: Deloitte ‘2009 Ethics & Workplace Survey’ conducted by Opinion Research Corporation 19/5/09

Looking for some social media action? Together, our companies are enabling collaboration in action right now. Call or  e-mail to get the full story, we are taking our strategic workshop offering out to businesses that really want to reap the benefits of using social media. I’ll be sharing what we learn together here.