07/23/2012 09:31 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2012

The Rise of the Social Enterprise

How social networking is driving new trends in the workplace

When you hear the term 'social enterprise', you could be forgiven for thinking we're talking about businesses doing good or giving back in a philanthropic sense. Indeed, this is a term that's grown, particularly in the UK, in recent years.

But increasingly, the phrase 'social enterprise' has another meaning: It represents the way organizations are becoming increasingly social and collaborative in how they operate internally, but also in terms of the way employees engage with clients and customers externally. With consumers spending an increasing amount of time online and communicating through social networks, and the rise of cloud computing enabling new modes of working, it's only natural that businesses should follow suit. Now though, some are beginning to evolve sophisticated techniques to enthuse staff to market, service and sell to a more social audience.

Going social
Turning a business into a socially collaborative organization has a real, tangible and long-term impact on revenues, lead generation and customer relationship management -- but crucially, it also affects the day to day experience of the workplace and employees' development and career opportunities. Regardless of the tools you're using, a social enterprise is centered around breaking down silos and breaking down the barriers that prevent knowledge sharing and freedom of expression. It's about ripping up the org chart and opening up the playing field. With the right processes in place, staff can collaborate across departments and across physical locations. This not only improves autonomy in the workforce, it also provides a measurable return back into the business. It's about giving employees a megaphone and getting them engaged in the heart of the business and with customers. The obvious result of satisfied customers is repeat business.

The knock-on effects are significant. A more agile approach and greater internal collaboration sets people up to innovate -- allowing individuals to succeed, while also benefiting the business. Traditionally, organizations have treated clients like transactions rather than focusing on deepening these customer relationships. From a business leader's point of view, becoming more social deepens customer engagement, allowing staff to generate more leads and improve sales. It also enables greater awareness of conversations taking place within online communities, and allows individuals to respond directly.

But getting the right approach is critical to success. At the moment, the market is awash with social media tools. Yet I'd bet that in the next 12 months, 90 percent of them won't be around -- or they will have changed considerably. Therefore, it's more about the processes around the toolsets, and the skillsets of the individuals using them. Educating and supporting employees to become more social is essential.

In practice
If you're someone who goes into work each day to face a mountain of work, you probably care more about working through your inbox than you do about changing the way you work. Don't feel bad -- that's only natural, and you won't be alone. But it's this factor that brings me on to one crucial part of the route to becoming a successful social enterprise: recognising WIIFM, or 'what's in it for me.' To get employees engaged around the customer experience, employers need to give them the 'why.' They need to show them why building their personal brand will benefit them individually; once that is in place, employees will become more engaged and interested in their work. A happy workforce leads to staff retention and the ability to develop a strong team with lasting benefits. Again, we see the bottom line: it saves money to invest in staff.

One way to do this is through gamification. Gamification is a growing trend that businesses are deploying to incentivize and reward those who embody company values and achieve objectives. This could be through financial reward, career progression opportunities or simply fame and recognition.

Take the strategy we've just implemented internally. Last year, we worked with gamification company Bunchball to launch our #GoingSocial program. It's all about building the profile of employees, giving them advice on who to follow, what groups to join and what kind of content they should share. Everyone needs to be using Pinterest, Facebook, LinkedIn,'s Chatter and Google+, but it's how they use them that's important.

We've used this to create so-called 'pack profiles' for everyone who works at Bluewolf. The profiles provide an overview of the employee and their professional skillsets, their company affiliations and clients, recent Twitter and blog posts, and any other articles or white papers they are interested in.

At Bluewolf, we now reward staff members with points and benefits for blogging, securing leads and taking a more social approach to work. Employees earn points for building and maintaining their pack profiles, sharing company content on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook or engaging with new networks and contacts. At the end of the quarter, the points are counted and those with the highest scores are given tangible rewards.

Why care?
It goes without saying that employees are an organization's greatest asset. So everything a business does, needs to be centered around them. Every single person is effectively a mouthpiece for their company, so they need to be given tools, support and guidance to become brand ambassadors. It's a means of empowerment and employee engagement, a way of encouraging innovation, but also an effective method of improving individual client relationships and creating new business leads.

While becoming a 'social enterprise' is not a silver bullet, companies need to embrace the changing world of communication. Rather than censor or restrict access to social networks, employers need to embrace the opportunities they offer. They need to promote this new approach by encouraging to build their personal brands, while individuals should recognise the personal value they can derive from a social enterprise.