I am on my way back from The Logistics & Supply Chain Forum (organized by Richmond Events) where I facilitated two workshop sessions on “Social Media: A Waste of Time or a Catalyst for Supply Chain Innovation?” Although there were a few skeptics in the room, the majority of the supply chain executives who participated in the sessions believe that social media will transform supply chain processes (for the better) in ways we can’t imagine today.

However, they also believe that the biggest obstacle to achieving greater adoption of social media in supply chain management is “unclear business case or value.”

In a nutshell, what many executives are saying is, “We know social media will transform supply chain processes, we just don’t know how exactly, and where to start and why.”

The workshop discussions revealed two issues that I believe are contributing to the problem: executives define social media too narrowly and they focus too much on the technology (and are scared off by all the buzzwords) instead of focusing on the opportunities to improve business processes.

In order to determine where to start with social media and develop a clear business case, supply chain executives will need to…

Think Beyond Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. For most executives, and the public in general, the term “social media” basically equates to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other publicly accessible sites. But the ecosystem of “social networking” solutions also includes “Enterprise 2.0” applications (aka “Enterprise Social Software”) that companies can deploy internally to facilitate communication and collaboration between employees and different functional groups, and with suppliers, customers, and other external partners in a private, secure environment.

At last month’s CSCMP conference, for example, Tricia Mims from Home Depot discussed how the company is using an internal social media site called “The Warehouse” that store and DC associates, as well as corporate store support center, use for “internal communication and knowledge transfer of innovative ideas and best practices for just about any issue impacting the business.” She added: “The ability to capture information on the obstacles that associates face allows the company to analyze and formulate solutions. It facilitates internal benchmarking that results in process standardization based on best practices.”

Another example is TEVA Pharmaceuticals, which is using an enterprise social application from Moxie Software to reduce manufacturing cycle times and improve lead times from upstream suppliers (for more details, see “Want a Fast-Response Supply Chain? Focus on People-to-People Communication”).

“I don’t see what role social media can have at our company beyond marketing, at least not at the moment,” said an executive from a B2C online retailer who participated in the workshop. But once I presented the case studies above, he shared that his company uses an internal platform for employees to post ideas for new initiatives or ways to improve the business. Employees vote for the ideas they like best, and those with the most votes get presented to the management team for approval. In short, this online retailer is already using social media effectively to drive continuous improvement and innovation inside the company, but the executive didn’t see it until now because his definition of social media was limited to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

“Focus on the work, not the words.” In her book The Plugged-In Manager, Terri Griffith highlights a conversation she had with Stewart Mader, author of the book Wikipatterns. She asked Mader how he talks about Enterprise 2.0 to people and here is part of his response:

People are so caught up in ideological arguments about what [social media technology] should be called. All are weak…What I find useless about the whole [Enterprise 2.0 terminology] is that when you create a new term for something, you create a distinction that makes the casual observer think it’s totally different…When people get caught up in the terminology, they lose focus on the part that’s the same [the work that needs to get done]…Slows down implementation as they think it’s about adoption. But in reality in an organization, you want people to get work done, first and foremost. If you create a divide, Enterprise 1.0, 1.5…you have people thinking that they need to do additional work to drive adoption of each “new” thing.

In other words, many executives get caught up in the terminology (blogs, wikis, tweets, discussion forums, RSS, Enterprise 2.0, etc.) and view social media as more work to do, more information they need to sift through in addition to emails and voicemails, instead of taking a step back and thinking through the work they and their colleagues need to get done, and then determining how these tools can help them achieve their objectives in a more productive and effective manner — and in many cases replace (not add to) existing tools and practices, such as sending emails and attachments back and forth or scheduling a bunch of conference calls where nothing gets documented afterwards.

Think beyond Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Focus on the work, not the words. Two recommendations for supply chain executives to get started with social media and build the business case.

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