In the recent IDC annual social business survey (June, 2012, N=700) we found that 67% of North American companies were using / implementing social solutions. That's a huge number and up 25% in only a year. With this rapid increase in business use of social technology across variety of functions you'd expect a similar increase in system integrator (SI) resources to support client needs. Many social technologies are reasonably easy to use but implementation still involves things like integration and change management. In fact, due to the cultural changes that need to accompany many of these technologies to ensure adoption, outside consulting help is in many ways more important than ever. Social technologies drive process changes that are in many ways no different than any other complex IT solution. This is true with enterprise social networks (ESNs) and maybe even more so with what are becoming business critical social CRM solutions. Solutions that focus on customer experience are complex and have the potential for great return if implemented properly, but the downside risk is also very high. The social megaphone effect that comes into play when a customer experience goes wrong can cause great and lasting damage to an unsuspecting company that does not properly implement and manage social customer systems.
At the CRM Evolution conference last month the subject of knowledgeable and skilled consulting resources around SCRM kept coming up in discussions. Anytime you move into new ways of solving business problems there's a learning curve of course, but the stakes are high when it comes to your customers. Companies need help figuring out strategy and then making that strategy work. There are many new opportunities inside the companies for new job types, positions like community manager are gaining in importance as more companies start to build and deploy communities. There's a shortage of these skills too, and often when there's a talent shortage companies turn to consulting and outsourcing partners to fill the gap. Unfortunately not many of the leading firms are prepared to step in with experienced resources, despite what they might lead you to believe.
The problem is in a few skill areas I think. In general the basic technology can be easily learned by current technical consultants, so the actual implementation probably isn't suffering. The problem lies on either end of the technical part of the project, the strategy and the ongoing operation and execution. I think, at least for now, that the biggest risk is the up front planning and strategy development. Social technologies can be used in many different ways and with very different outcomes, so it's critical to map out where a company is going. From ESNs to SCRM there just aren't many senior executives that have the broad understanding of social technologies, social strategy, processes and outcomes to build effective strategies. Turning to SIs at this point may not solve the problem as effectively as it has in the past. Certainly the vendors understand the technology and are helping companies deploy the software, but it's not often that a vendor offers the level of management consulting required to build a complete social business strategy and then help implement it successfully. Social business acumen is, for the most part, limited to the thought leaders that have helped shape the direction of the application of social in the enterprise over the last few years, and out of those thought leaders it's a limited group that have the operational experience to turn strategy into action.
Out of the larger SIs it seems that most are just now starting to think about building practices around social business. It's difficult to move beyond a current practice area into new opportunities while protecting current revenue. For example molding a CRM practice into one that can effectively provide strategic leadership for adding SCRM capabilities isn't easy, and probably requires some new thinking. Its never easy to mold an existing business into something new, in fact that's the problem the SIs need to solve for themselves and for their clients. Firms that incorporate the right leadership and capabilities quickly have a real opportunity to gain competitive advantage in this developing market.
Out of the leading firms IBM is really the only one that has build out a significant social business offering, and that is in conjunction to its own social technologies. Many of the other firms are starting to think about the opportunity but are moving slowly to protect other areas of revenue. I won't go through each of the firms and their capabilities for now, but one has only to spend some time on their web sites to see that there are a scant few offerings listed. It will be interesting to see when, or if, they step in to fill the gap.
The down stream skills are also in short supply, but are developing across many areas. In social marketing, an area of social that has matured more quickly, there are many agencies that have developed solid skills. There are also some "snake oil" salesmen in that area, but that's to be expected in a rapidly developing market. Buyer beware, but there is help available. We're also seeing some professional organizations develop that are providing opportunities for peer learning, sharing and professional development. For example, community managers can participate in the Community Roundtable, which offers monthly reports, networking, community management training, and advisory services. For customer experience professionals there's the CXPA, an organization that helps CX professionals through research and networking. As social business positions become better defined there will no doubt be more of these organizations to help foster professional development. There are also educational institutions that are stepping in to offer training in these new professions. The University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management has established a SCRM program that is leveraging thought leaders to provide instruction in the emerging area.
Social business continues to evolve and gain traction, but that traction is straining available skills. Support organizations like SIs and outsourcing partners will need to step up and quickly develop practices to help businesses or lose business to smaller, more nimble organizations that will step in to fill the gap. Educational institutions and professional organizations are developing programs and many people will leverage these assets to gain important new skills. The skills gap will continue for some time though, as businesses look for key leadership.