IT Juggles Its Social Media Roles

Social media used to be solely a marketing task. But now that its use is expanding, does IT play implementer, cop, manager or all of the above?

When a late arrival thought he'd catch up on the buzz at a recent conference of CIOs, he logged in to Twitter. What he found -- or rather, didn't find -- amazed him.

"I couldn't find a single tweet about what was happening at the conference that morning -- 300 CIOs in a room and not a single one using Twitter," recalls Paul Gillin, founder of Paul Gillin Communications, a social media consultancy in Framingham, Mass. Gillin, who's a former Computerworld editor in chief, was at a 2010 conference being held by a vendor he didn't want to name.

Though he acknowledges that social media tools are used predominately for marketing, the lack of Twitter activity among a group of CIOs "didn't make sense to me," Gillin says. "When a new technology comes into use, it is IT's responsibility to understand it."

"Were they healthcare CIOs? We're always five to 10 years behind," says Ed Marx, CIO at Texas Health Resources in Arlington, in response to Gillin's anecdote. Marx, who calls himself a "big-time" Twitter user, says, "It's unfortunate that CIOs who really should be out there leading and experimenting and innovating are not."

Marx says he started using Twitter two and a half years ago and now regularly uses Facebook, LinkedIn and an internal social media tool.

Marx aside, IT in general appears ambivalent about social media. In a 2009 survey of over 1,400 CIOs by Robert Half Technology, more than half of the respondents said their companies banned social media use by employees. Another 19% said their organizations limited social media use to business purposes only. A Manpower study based on a poll of 34,000 employers -- the respondents weren't necessarily CIOs -- conducted at the same time found that only 24% of U.S. companies had formal policies about social media.

Outside Looking In

"I don't see IT taking the function over," says Joseph Yanoska, vice president of technology at American Greetings Interactive in Cleveland. He thinks marketing should control the technology, since "it's ultimately a tool to help the relationship with customers."

But Gillin doesn't think that means IT should be less involved than it was when, for instance, companies began adopting ERP systems 15 years ago. "IT was very involved in that, despite the fact that ERP was an accounting technology," he says. Social media "is the future of how companies will operate, will engage with customers. IT should have an important role in it."

Yanoska does want a somewhat bigger part in his company's social media discussion. He runs IT for the online unit of American Greetings, which operates AmericanGreetings.com, BlueMountain.com, eGreetings.com and greeting card sites for MSN and Yahoo. He says IT would like to use social networking tools more freely, so it could, for example, have an easy way to inform customers about new features and site maintenance.

Right now, designated non-IT gatekeepers post on the sites, and IT has to make its case for a post. "Sometimes we get it, sometimes we don't," Yanoska says. He would like more options for posting on Facebook, especially when maintenance upgrades are about to happen. "That's a really good place [to tell] customers who are really invested in the brand, 'We plan to do maintenance.' [That way] you don't get those posts, 'Hey, what's going on?' because they already know," Yanoska says.

At Texas Health, Marx went in the other direction and ratcheted down his involvement. That's because he drove the company's adoption of the technology, using Twitter for collaboration and communications, and starting Facebook fan pages, LinkedIn groups, a Twitter feed, and microsites to connect with employees and patients. He says a microsite played a crucial role in getting employees to adopt electronic health records, and encouraging them to try social media tools and become more comfortable with the technology.

As more parts of the business got involved in social media, Texas Health created a 10-person social media steering committee. Members included the president of the hospital, Marx and the heads of marketing and communications, human resources, legal and compliance. Other groups, primarily marketing, handle day-to-day social media operations now, and Marx says this makes sense. He plays a strategic role, devising new ideas and figuring out new ways to leverage social media.

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