The Emerging Social Enterprise: Dreamforce 2012

To borrow from current IT parlance, if there’s an “actionable insight” IT executives can take from last week’s Dreamforce conference at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, it’s this: You better embrace the so-called “social enterprise,” because social media capabilities will be infiltrating every part of your organization.

“Social is inherent to what we are,” Facebook CIO Tim Campos said during CEO Marc Benioff’s keynote address Sept. 19. “We are social beings.”

It is this idea–that business processes are more social than technical–that’s behind what Benioff likes to call the “social revolution.” It’s also behind the fact that all of the major announcements made at Dreamforce–from a Dropbox-style storage tool for its Chatter social platform to a performance management application infused with social capabilities–centered around enabling the social enterprise.

In Benioff’s view, it’s no longer enough to have an event, say an order for a product,  that automatically triggers updates in related applications. People, such as employees, partners or customers, need to be looped in, and they need to communicate with each other in real time to provide support, answer questions, or simply share their actions. In fact, by embedding social tools throughout their organizations, Benioff believes corporations can turn the urge to socialize into a valuable business asset.

“It’s not just about how we’re connecting, or why,” Benioff said during his keynote. “It goes deeper. It gets down in our core. It’s about changing business.”

Such bold claims are backed up by data. For example, an IBM survey of 1,700 CEOs earlier this year found while just 16 percent of CEOs say their organizations have social business platforms in place now, some 57 percent say they’ll have such platforms in place in three to five years.

Given the upward trajectory for the social enterprise, it’s not surprising that the trend toward social business capabilities has been catching on with’s big-name customers, some of who were on hand to provide progress reports on their path to becoming social enterprises. These are companies that have moved well beyond Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, and are pushing the envelope on how social media can deliver business value.

One of the more ambitious adopters of the social enterprise concept is Angela Ahrendts, the forward thinking CEO of upscale British clothier Burberry. Ahrendts joined Benioff on stage at the end of his keynote to provide a brief, compelling portrait of the company’s initiative to connect with customers via social media and mobile devices. The effort is on full display at Burberry’s newest store, which opened in London earlier this month.

Ahrendts claimed the new store represents “the first time a company is blurring the lines between physical and digital.” Repeat customers are greeted via a message to their mobile device when they first walk in, and the store launches what Ahrendts described as a “fully immersive experience.” Every product is equipped with an RFID chip so that when a customer tries on, say, a raincoat, nearby screens can duplicate rainfall, and mirrors can provide not just a reflection, but also data on the manufacturing of the garment as well as video of it being made.

“Everything physical, everything we do, has to be linked up,” said Ahrendts. “That is our vision. That is our goal.”

It appears to be a vision other customers share.

Coca-Cola demonstrated new vending machines that are integrated with social media and enable people to invent–and share via social networks–their own custom-made soda flavors.

Bruno Cercley, CEO of French ski-maker Rossignol, described his company’s efforts to create social profiles of its customers and work more closely with them on things like ski design and training regimens. “This is going to help us win in the future,” said Cercley.

Benioff described’s work with General Electric to create a “social network around a turbine” in which social capabilities built into products will allow technicians to follow feeds of information from, for example, a jet engine.

In a video segment shown during Benioff’s keynote, Virgin America CEO David Cush talked about how the airline is becoming a “social enterprise at 35,000 feet.” The airline is using seat-back displays and’s Chatter–a social media platform for business–to provide personalized communications to each passenger as well as enable social-style communications among passengers. The point, said Cush, is to change the flying experience so it’s “not 4-6 hours of dead time.” Rather, he said, “The goal is for (your flight) to be a great 4-6 hours of your life.”

But it may have been Cush’s boss, Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson, who inadvertently provided the most ominous observation for those companies that have been reluctant to bring social capabilities into their organizations. “In business,” Branson said during a fireside chat with Benioff that had almost nothing to do with technology, “protecting against the downside is pretty critical.”

With so many companies investigating the potential of social business tools, it would seem that putting off doing so could very well invite that downside.

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