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6/13/2012
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Midmarket Firms Big On Collaboration, Slow On Social

Companies with 100 to 1,000 employees embrace collaboration projects but drag their feet on social media, with just 15% maintaining a formal corporate presence, according to IBM CEO survey.

Get Social: 11 Management Systems That Can Help
Get Social: 11 Management Systems That Can Help
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It might come as no great surprise that CEOs of midsize businesses consider customers a top priority. So why are so few of these companies using social media?

In IBM's newest CEO survey, just 15% of the top dogs at midmarket firms--defined as organizations with between 100 and 1,000 employees--said they had a corporate-sponsored social presence. That seems like an extraordinarily low rate at this point--it would have made more sense a year or two ago. Ed Abrams, VP of marketing for IBM's midsize business division, pointed out that the figure excludes any ad-hoc social business activities conducted by departments or employees.

"On the surface, yes, 15% sounds really small," Abrams said in an interview. "But if you take a step back and think about what's required to establish an effective, brand-level social presence--and what a lot of midsize businesses have as far as brand and marketing resources and expenses--it kind of is a little less surprising."

[ Read Social Media Usage By SMBs Often Ad-Hoc. ]

It's safe to wager that far more than 15% of small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are using social media for marketing and other purposes. But much of that social business is conducted in organic and unplanned ways, none of which show up on the balance sheet. Abrams is referring to a much more structured approach to social business. IBM's stat, in other words, speaks more to the corporatization of social media--think less in terms of tweets and fans, and more in the language of profit-and-loss statements.

"[SMBs], like everybody in business, are still struggling to discover exactly what the intrinsic value of social media is and how to put that on a balance sheet," Abrams said. "We're now just getting as an industry to the point where we can do that effectively."

The study said that 15% rate will jump to 50% in the next three to five years as companies figure out how to calculate the costs and returns associated with their social media programs. "The CEOs of midsize businesses are really recognizing the need for social media to become a part of the fabric of their corporate environment," Abrams said.

Collaboration, on the other hand, clearly has the attention of the C suite. IBM's study says 45% of CEOs said "they expect to be most influenced by the need to foster openness across their organization--internally and externally--while empowering individuals to facilitate innovation, collaboration, and creativity." That's a 50% increase from 2010, the last time IBM conducted its CEO interviews. Collaboration isn't just an internal game; seven in 10 CEOs indicated plans to "partner extensively" with other companies. "They just recognize they can't survive on their own in this complex world we live in," Abrams said. "They recognize the need to leverage the collaborative expertise not just of their own organizations but that of others."

Security is a general concern for midmarket companies, not just among CIOs but throughout the executive floor. Abrams said that mobility is a key source of security worries, though the most recent CEO interviews didn't ask specific questions about bring-your-own-device or related paradigms. IBM made its own headlines with recent changes to its corporate IT policies governing the use of personal devices and applications. Cast in that light, it's interesting to hear that IBM sees itself as a potential source of help for SMBs in the bring-your-own era.

"That points to vendors like us and the rest of the industry to recognize that that's our job now," Abrams said of SMB concerns around mobility and other technology areas. "Midsize businesses have said they're concerned about this, they don't quite know what to do about it, and that's where we see an opportunity for IBM, our business partners, and the industry as a whole to really step up and answer those tougher questions about: 'How the heck do I deal with this?'"

SMBs have saved big buying software on a subscription model. The new, all-digital Cloud Beyond SaaS issue of InformationWeek SMB shows how to determine if infrastructure services can pay off, too. Also in this issue: One startup's experience with infrastructure-as-a-service shows how the numbers stack up for IaaS vs. internal IT. (Free registration required.)

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