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Converting Social Networking Skills to Social Business Savvy

A pilot program at San Jose State University in California is helping students convert social networking prowess into skills useful to forward-looking companies that want to use "social business" to improve their operations. A professor teaching in the pilot believes the lessons he's adding into his classes ought to be part of every student's coursework.

The idea of social business is to apply social software to improve and accelerate how work gets done on the inside of the firewall. Whereas social branding -- blogs, wikis, bookmarks, videos, message boards, Facebook, Twitter, and similar tools -- is increasingly being used by companies to communicate with the external world, what's often missing is the application of those same tools and techniques to create an open, supportive culture internally.

As Professor Larry Gee enthusiastically declared, "There are no boundaries! Social media knows no boundaries. You look on campus, and what do you see? Art students, engineering students, sciences, business, students on their phones, on their laptops using social media tools. It's not isolated to one discipline at all."

Just as students may come together to work on projects in a cross-disciplinary way, he explained, the goal with a social business is to set up networks of people within an organization to apply relevant content and expertise to advance their internal processes.

Genesis of New Teaching

The pilot had a brief birthing. In July 2011 Timothy Hill, who chairs San Jose State's Management Information Systems, was attending an IBM Academic Initiative meeting. Hill sat next to Daryl Pereira, a social media manager for IBM, who started pitching him on the importance of teaching students the concepts of social business. Hill took his idea back to campus and approached Gee about adding specialized curriculum to two undergraduate capstone strategic management classes Gee taught.

At the same time Gee had received an invitation to teach a graduate level class in the university's Master of Biotechnology program, a degree program that combines science and business. According to Gee, those students have multiple directions they may head: working in the pharmaceuticals industry, going into pharmacy school, becoming a doctor. In all of those cases, he noted, there's need for social business. "Say, for example, they're in a 12-person lab team, and they want to document their research," Gee said. "Where is a good place to put it in order to share with the team? A blog or a wiki that the other scientists and lab people have access to."

Gee persuaded the head of the biotech program to allow him to instill the new content into the graduate course too, and lessons about social business were born on campus.

Whereas curriculum typically takes between six and nine months to develop, pulling together this new content in time for a fall preview took just weeks, Gee said. IBM's Pereira worked with him to conjure up Web-based resources, webinars, and classroom presentations featuring outside speakers. The social media manager also volunteered his Friday nights to talk with the graduate students online.

At some point in its evolution, the initiative became a part of IBM’s "The Great Mind Challenge," an academic contest that originated in India and is now making its way into other countries. The Challenge encourages students to develop collaboration and problem-solving skills while tackling real-world business challenges submitted by companies, start-ups, community leaders, and nonprofit organizations.

A Live Case Study

In San Jose State's case, IBM delivered a live case study project for all of the students to work on. IBM business partner Group Business Systems (GBS) is a global software and technology services company that specializes in cloud automation and IBM Lotus Notes and Domino. With 15 offices around the world, the company knew it could be using social channels more effectively to keep employees connected.

After receiving grounding in the basics of social business, the students teamed up into 24 four-person consulting teams and went into GBS to interview employees, or, as Gee calls them, "stakeholders." The goal was to understand how information flowed internally among the various departments -- HR, marketing, product development, customer service, sales, accounting, etc. Then each team built a prototype using social media tools within IBM's developerWorks website.

Currently referred to as a "social business platform," developerWorks provides a number of tools to create and work with communities of people. For example, for their projects students could use a blogs feature in developerWorks to present ideas and get feedback from others. The wikis could be used as a repository for maintaining team content. They could also use Profiles to connect with people at GBS, IBM, and elsewhere to get help.

The San Jose State project had three phases. In the first phase, students conducted interviews and performed a "social business audit" of GBS. In the second phase, they built and submitted a prototype using the tools in developerWorks. In the final phase, each team of students put together a final report and recommendations for improving GBS' social business strategy.

24 Social Business Proposals

By the end of the project, which had taken on the flavor of a competition, GBS was left with 24 proposals. Both IBM and GBS culled through the offerings. Now, said Gee, "They are taking the best of the best, and they are incorporating their recommendations in the GBS environment."

Gee considers the addition of the new content a success. In fact, he points to one of the master students who obtained a job within a biotech company's marketing department based on her working knowledge of social business.

Gee intends to teach the curriculum again, and GBS expects to participate as a case study again. With time, he said, he anticipates other faculty on campus entertaining the idea of adding social business topics to their own courses.

"Today's students are already social savvy in their personal lives," Gee observed. "However it's vital for them to be able to apply these skills to business and differentiate themselves as they enter a tough job market. Through the use of IBM technology and experienced mentors, our students will join the corporate world prepared to compete."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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