Governance: Harnessing the power of social media in manufacturing

by Phil Mennie


Posted on 4 Feb 2015 at 12:00 am



The other day I decided to check out the history of crowdsourced innovation in manufacturing. And guess what: I found that carmakers have some of the longest and most productive track records. It’s now more than four years since Fiat developed and launched the world’s first crowdsourced car, the Mio. And automotive rivals ranging from Ford to Jaguar – to name but two – have long been recognised for their smart use of social media to foster innovation.

The other day I decided to check out the history of crowdsourced innovation in manufacturing. And guess what: I found that carmakers have some of the longest and most productive track records. It’s now more than four years since Fiat developed and launched the world’s first crowdsourced car, the Mio. And automotive rivals ranging from Ford to Jaguar – to name but two – have long been recognised for their smart use of social media to foster innovation.

As such examples underline, there are massive opportunities for manufacturing companies to use social media as a source of ongoing and effectively inexhaustible innovation. It’s a technique known as ‘ideation’: harvesting the ideas and creativity of large numbers of people, both across and possibly beyond the business, to accelerate and escalate product development. Experience shows that the costs of ideation are usually justified – and often dwarfed – by the resulting creation of high-value intellectual property.

Given the size of the potential benefits, I’m delighted that more and more of the manufacturing clients I speak to are keen on tapping into crowdsourced innovation. However, when first considering venturing into this area, companies often assume their initial priority should be to focus on the technology they’ll use and the type of innovation they want to achieve.

But if they take this approach, my experience shows they’ll be starting in the wrong place. In fact, the critical first step towards a successful social media strategy is to implement the right governance in terms of controls and ownership.

To explain why, allow me to step back and examine the wider context. Today, most companies accept they need some form of presence and voice on social media. But while social media has moved into the business mainstream, the way it’s used and organised in many organisations is still patchy, siloed and disjointed.

It isn’t hard to see why. By its nature, social media spans multiple functions within an organisation – IT, HR, marketing, customer relations – each with its own agenda and a different perception of social media’s role and value for the business. If all these groups are allowed to move out onto social networks in an uncontrolled way, the result is a kind of ‘Wild West’ of fragmented communications and conflicting messages, with nobody able to call all the shots.

To my mind, this situation is a bit like the early days of corporate email 15 or 20 years ago. Back then, individuals and teams would simply set up email accounts and start communicating on behalf of their businesses. The profound risks of this approach soon became clear, and control was pulled back to the corporate centre.

Before manufacturing companies can truly harness crowdsourced ideation, a similar reassertion of oversight and control must take place in social media. This need is further underlined by the embarrassing issues and scandals that are frequently emerging from employees’ use of social networks, ranging from inappropriate tweets to unauthorised disclosure of confidential information.

So, how can companies go about taming this Wild West – and thereby position themselves to use manufacturing ideation securely and productively? Given the importance of social media to everything from the brand to the share price, the first component to put in place is very senior – preferably Board-level – sponsorship. Below this, clear ownership of all activities on social networks should be allocated to one leading stakeholder, usually the head of marketing or corporate communications.

Finally, companies should create a committee or working group made up of representatives from all teams with a strong interest in social media – IT, PR, HR, customer services, and so on. This group should meet regularly to discuss social media policies and everyday issues, and ensure all social media activities across the business are aligned and coordinated.

For any manufacturing businesses, social media opens up new vistas of opportunity for harnessing innovation. But to translate these opportunities safely and sustainably into business value, it first needs a solid bedrock of governance and control.


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