Today, as part of my current course with the Social Media Academy, I’ve been working an exercise to develop a concept and framework for a consultancy business in the field of social media. In line with how the assignment was set, the first thing I did was to endeavor to define the problem my business would seek to address.

I framed that in terms of the area I would like to do more work in, mainly medium sized professional services companies.

danger sign

After reading my screed through a couple of times I felt it was a fair representation of how I currently see the field and why some, maybe many companies in that sector might be reluctant or even resistant to investing in developing and implementing social media – or social business – strategies.

Then I wondered how others might judge what I’ve written. Which is why I’ve decided to stick my neck out and invite comment and critique here on the blog.

What I’ve written is frankly based not on detailed research so much as my sense of the current state of play. So it’s quite possible that my sweeping generalizations do not measure up to current business realities. On the other hand, my observations here are not completely subjective: I read what others write and I listen to what business owners and executives say.

I recognize too that what I’ve written is not what you would call revolutionary. I’m just endeavoring to set down a summary of how I see the situation.

So here goes.

The problem

Many business owners understand, at least at a basic level, that the all-pervasive adoption of social media has changed the business landscape dramatically and irrevocably. They see that their own company is not up to speed and they do not want to be left behind. Some even say they want to be at the leading edge of change. But they or their business partners, or their legal or other advisers, counsel caution and a wait-and-see attitude, often citing all the things that can go wrong via the social networks.

They want to act, but are afraid of getting it wrong:

  • they don’t know what is involved – cost, time, people, reputation
  • they don’t believe you can get an ROI calculation
  • they don’t know if their organization and/or their people are ready
  • they don’t know who to trust to show them

Companies in professional services and in heavily regulated industries, such as financial services, are especially wary. For most such companies, all or nearly all of the members of the board of directors and the C-suite executives will have spent their working professional lives in a culture and mindset of command and control, with hierarchical structures and chains of command. To them the social web can, understandably,  look very much a place of anarchy, with social media engagement a recipe for serious, possibly terminal reputational damage and trashing of the brand.

If they decide that they want to “do something” about social media, their training and orientation to risk management through a command and control structure may make them susceptible to the advertising agency or other purveyor of social media services or “solutions” who offers to provide them with some semblance of social business. A social media tasting. Typically this can be along the lines of “why don’t we just set you up with a Facebook page and see how that goes?”.

Such a piecemeal approach is not likely to be based on anything like a comprehensive strategic assessment, much less a strategic plan of social media implementation: so the chances of success are slim at best. And because there is no strategic framework for identifying what “success” might look like, the company is unable to make an informed judgment later about the value of that particular experiment, or of the potential benefit of other social business initiatives that may be proposed.

Properly advised about precedents and procedures for risk management, even the most conservative of companies may be willing to invest some of their people’s time, some reputational and social capital and some money into socializing their business. But if the only ideas that are put to them are essentially tactical, not strategic, and do not address the financial controller’s concerns and those of other C-suite executives, the decision may be made, however reluctantly, to do nothing.

The fundamental problem then is that they have not had the benefit of being shown how they can move along the path of a holistic socializing of the business, sensibly, strategically and measurably.

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Des Walsh is an executive coach. He helps business owners and entrepreneurs worldwide deal effectively with the feeling of being left behind or overwhelmed, or both, about social media – especially LinkedIn - and how to engage safely and effectively with social media to help grow their business. Connect with Des on LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter. And to stay in the loop, get Des’s weekly Social Business Bites (select snippets of his "best of the week" online finds).