Five ways social software can prevent the unexpected from ruining your business

For many employees, exceptions are actually the rule—which means that how we handle exceptions can become a substantial competitive advantage.

In the business world, we like consistency. We script and automate processes. We design jobs around consistent, repeatable procedures. And as a result, our companies become pretty good at the “business as usual” part of their businesses. The problem comes when the unforeseeable and unexpected happens. From unexpected customer needs, to brand-damaging viral videos, to supply-chain-disrupting earthquakes, it’s the unexpected that is most disruptive. To quote The Dark Knight: “Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos.”

The benign phrase we use for how we deal with the resulting chaos of PR nightmares and natural disasters is exception handling. From surveys we’ve conducted with executives, we’ve found that employees in a wide range of roles (including customer support, logistics, manufacturing, sales, etc.) spend 60 to 70 percent of their time handling exceptions in one form or another. This means that, for many employees, exceptions are actually the rule—and that how we handle exceptions can become a substantial competitive advantage.

One of the most powerful tools for exception handling is social software. Social software builds flexibility and adaptability into organizations that help them respond to the unexpected. In our paper Metrics that matter: Social software for business performance, our two case study companies experienced a 21 percent and a 61 percent improvement in time to resolution by applying social software to exception handling situations. This suggests that with the correct implementation, there is a great deal of untapped potential in this area.

There’s been a lot of hype about social software without a lot of demonstrated results. One of the common problems we’ve seen is that when companies implement social software, they often focus on adoption rather than performance impact. Social software (like any new tool) should be implemented in specific teams for specific purposes, targeting metrics that matter to the business. This ensures that the tool is creating value rather than just wasting time. Implementing social software has several significant advantages:

Solve problems faster: Social software can significantly decrease the time to resolution for exceptions. People are effective repositories of functional knowledge, and social tools (wikis, forums, online collaboration spaces, chat tools, etc.) allow employees to quickly canvass broad groups to locate people with the experience, skills, and/or authority needed to efficiently solve a problem.

Increase transparency: Social software can also radically increase transparency by connecting people across silos and layers of hierarchy, which is particularly critical in large, bureaucratic organizations. You might be surprised by how many people (sometimes hundreds) can efficiently use a single chat room or forum. Bringing groups together allows you to source leading ideas from every part of the organization. It also allows you to identify bottlenecks and work around them.

Free documentation: In addition to helping solve problems, social software also has the benefit of creating a public record of what the problem was, who solved it, and how it was solved. It’s essentially a free documentation process that converts individual employees’ knowledge into institutional knowledge that can be accessed and shared.

Recognize patterns: Over time, that documentation becomes an invaluable source of insight into the problems in your business. By identifying patterns, you can improve processes to eliminate recurring problems. You can better foresee potential problems and even recognize unmet needs and opportunities for product or service innovations and for process improvement.

Discover and build talent: Training people how to effectively use social software takes time, but it’s arguably the most important skill your employees can have. As problems arise, social software helps the most engaged and passionate employees to amplify their impact. Social tools become an amplifier and a connector, giving them access to the people and resources they need to solve problems. They also give leadership and peers the ability to recognize these employees for their contributions. As these employees confront these challenges, they build the critical skills to allow them to respond quickly to any problem your organization might face, from the mundane to the critical.

Where have you seen social software used most effectively to improve business performance? What challenges have you faced with implementation? What role have you seen social software play in breaking down organizational silos or promoting cultural change?