I’m on way back from The Logistics & Supply Chain Forum where I conducted two workshop sessions on the role of social media in supply chain management. I’ve been doing these workshops for the past couple of years, discussing the topic with hundreds of supply chain executives, and my main takeaway is that we’re still in the “early observer” stage when it comes to using social media technologies to improve supply chain processes.

There are many reasons why most companies are still on the sidelines, but if I had to distill them down to a few, here are the main ones:

The word “social” creates the wrong (a non-business) impression. “We don’t go to work to socialize,” explained one executive at a workshop I conducted last month, “we go to work to get our jobs done.” When supply chain executives hear the term social media, what comes to mind is Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and as a result, they view “social media” as a medium to socialize (take water cooler conversations online) instead of a new type of communication and collaboration tool (see “Supply Chain Executives Define Social Media Too Narrowly”). Simply put, “social media” has an image problem in supply chain circles. The term comes with a lot of baggage, and other names being used, like “enterprise social software,” aren’t much better.

How do you get people to change the way they work? Just because you deploy a new technology and tell people to use it doesn’t mean that they will. “By the time I figure out how to do something this new way, I could have done it five times my way,” is how many people react when confronted with new technologies and processes. We are creatures of habit, and getting us to change is not easy, especially if we believe that our way of doing things is better (easier and faster) than the new way being proposed. Yes, this is classic Change Management 101, so companies will need to take a refresher course as part of their social media deployment strategy.

Why is using social media better than how we’re working today? This point is related to the one above, and it boils down to quantifying the business value of using social media technologies (in the broadest sense of the term) to power supply chain processes compared to the way those processes are managed today. How much money will we save? How much more productive will we be? Most companies can’t answer these questions yet, which is why getting buy-in from workers (and upper management) is difficult. It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem: it’s hard to answer these questions until you try it, but it’s hard to get approval to try it without having these answers.

Social media is too generic for supply chain use. Said differently, social media technologies lack supply chain context. For example, Facebook’s status prompt — “What’s on your mind?” — is as generic as you can get, and it reinforces the image of social media as a tool to socialize, not to get work done. So, something as simple as configuring status prompts to be more supply chain and logistics specific (like “What loads are uncovered?” for a transportation dispatcher to post and execute a spot tender with carriers) would go a long way in helping supply chain executives see the potential value of these solutions.

Executives don’t have the time or desire to access yet another information system. To paraphrase what I regularly hear from executives: “I barely have enough time in the day to get through my emails and voicemails; how do you expect me to use yet another system to keep track of discussions and status updates?” Simply put, executives view social media as more work, which is true if companies just tell employees to use these new tools without also changing the underlying work processes, and if social media tools and functionality remain generic and aren’t integrated with the supply chain and logistics software solutions employees use to get their work done today.

I am convinced that this whole discussion about “social media in supply chain” will be irrelevant in five years, if not sooner. The use of social media technologies to manage supply chain processes will simply become the norm, just like the Internet and Web became the norm more than a decade ago. But we first have to recognize the hurdles that exist today and figure out ways to overcome them…to get more companies beyond the early observer stage and into the early adopter one.