Forget about Farmville. Social media is becoming an essential tool for IT organisations looking to improve support and boost productivity says Chris Gomersall, VP of EMEA

Social media has made the world a smaller and more enlightened place, allowing friends, family members, business colleagues and often strangers to share information, play collaboratively, and lend each other support across counties, countries and time zones.

As social media’s popularity grows, enterprises and their IT organisations are realising that the technology can be used for more than just playing games and sharing family photos. When the collaborative power of social media is tapped and the knowledge and good will of people utilised, the essence of information technology service management (ITSM) can be more fully realised.

When done right, social IT support can give IT organisations the power to more efficiently help people, both inside and outside the data centre, obtain fast and accurate service and knowledge. By helping users help each other in a managed framework supporting both real-time and archival knowledge, socially enabled support inevitably leads to enhanced IT productivity and efficiency as well as more satisfied end users.

Adoption challenges

Given social IT’s inherent power and widespread popularity, it’s surprising that more IT organisations haven’t already embraced the movement. In fact, businesses in general are just beginning to wake up to social media’s potential. Only slightly more than half (52 per cent) of firms currently use social media in any form, reports the membership-based business consultancy Forum of Private Business.

In all actuality, there are several reasons why so many enterprises and their IT teams have yet to embrace a more social position. A good number of organisations stubbornly cling to the view that social media is a frivolous trend with no real role to play in business or IT management.

Other enterprises are still trying to figure out how to fit social media into long-established support frameworks, many of which were never designed to encourage a free flow of knowledge between various business units and end users.

Finally, more than a few enterprises and IT teams are simply terrified of social media, believing that information distributed to participants will lead to angry managers, disgruntled employees, security threats and perhaps even lost business.

Needs met

While many CIOs and IT managers remain wary of the idea of social IT, it is likely they will recognise the power of transparency and increased collaboration in the business and with customers through new support channels.

As the rapid growth of social media services like Facebook and Twitter proves, people crave the ability to instantly collaborate with other individuals who share their interests. The challenge facing IT organisations is harnessing this need in a way that will benefit enterprise employees, business partners, and internal IT operations.

There are three distinct groups that can benefit from utilising social support models. First are businesses that engage and support customers via social networks. This can be the corner coffee shop promoting Monday’s special, or O2 UK providing customer assistance.

Social IT can also helps IT staff members better collaborate with each other or with their end users as they work on projects, look to deliver more efficient service, or attempt to get to the root cause of a problem or discuss a change request. A more social IT organisation can share insight, advice, news and ideas in a more convivial environment that’s instantly available anytime, anywhere.

Last, social support allows employees to easily and conveniently tap into the real-time expertise of colleagues and IT through a single interface, as opposed to patiently waiting in a phone queue to hear a live voice or searching endlessly through static knowledge articles that are often out-of-date and useless.

People power

Social IT support will succeed by tapping into a user’s desire to contribute knowledge, help others and achieve community acclaim. By enabling knowledgeable individuals to participate in an active, engaging and collaborative environment, social media can substantially improve support quality and reduce costs.

IT managers and staff can’t forget that today’s end users tend to be much more technologically savvy. Many are very comfortable solving their own problems with the collective help of information and people spread across the internet and social networks.

With many technical problems now more like business problems, employees often turn to colleagues for front-line support without involving IT. Social support facilitates people helping people with IT merely monitoring interactions for trends or problems.

More social support also has the effect of raising comfort levels, making end-users more likely to seek help rather than waste hours trying, often unsuccessfully, to solve a problem on their own.

When seeking technical assistance, most people prefer to go directly to their trusted advisors (friends, co-workers or their favourite support staffer) before reaching out to a faceless person on the other end of a phone line. Why not facilitate the sharing of knowledge and capturing newly created information for others with the same problem to easily find and use?

Social IT is simply the latest step in an evolution that has seen service desk organisations and technologies over the years progressively add new capabilities, including email, instant messaging, chat and web portals to their support resources.

Yet social IT has the potential to be more powerful than any capability that has gone before. When done right, social IT can reduce the pressure on overburdened service desk staff, allowing support to be provided efficiently and cost effectively 24x7. Additionally, with users solving most routine problems on their own, IT staff members are left available to focus on core tasks, including user training, solving bigger problems or contributing to activities that help grow the business.

Incidentally, social IT isn’t going to replace existing support organisations it will simply make them better meet end user expectations. As technology scales and becomes more pervasive, IT support must efficiently scale with it. While end users are getting better at solving routine problems, dedicated support representatives will continue to resolve IT problems and manage change.

IT staffers are also needed to provide training and tools to effectively manage the social environment. If IT doesn’t do it, some other group within the organisation probably will.

Selecting a platform

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing social IT support adopters is finding the right platform. Mainstream social media services like Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia are popular, well known, and easily understood by almost any user, yet aren’t easily adaptable to enterprise IT needs.

More specialised tools, such as Yammer and Jive fill in the some of the gaps left by the consumer-focused platforms and resolve some privacy concerns. But these tools are more about enterprise collaboration and don’t meet the needs of social IT support.

For full-function ITSM combined with social IT capabilities, a growing number of IT organisations are turning to modern, web-based SaaS applications. These tools provide functionality like wiki-style knowledge authoring, support for video, built-in content management systems, mobile device web access, integration with social media Web APIs, and chat and micro-blogging capabilities, all delivered on a single extensible development platform.

Next steps

While selecting the right platform is an important step toward creating an effective social IT support environment, the work doesn’t end there. As anyone who has ever watched Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me knows, being a good host requires much more than simply providing a nice table and a good meal. Similarly, hosting a social IT environment demands a greater commitment than just opening a service platform to end users.

A social IT environment will require care and feeding. Potential users need to be encouraged to visit and use the system and some training and major culture change will be required in many cases. Social IT administrators also need to follow up on user suggestions, incidents and problems.

The next step is up to you. Put aside social media misconceptions and fears and begin levelling the barriers that are preventing users from helping themselves and from helping each other. It is time to become more social.