Social networking is among the megatrends currently revolutionising the consumer and enterprise IT space. The concept has enjoyed tremendous adoption rates and become mainstream in the consumer space across Gulf countries such as the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, with strong Internet penetration and a young, tech-savvy population serving as the key drivers.

In addition, the increasing demand for ubiquitous access to information and the growing collaboration needs of users are also contributing to this uptake.

The utilisation of social networks among consumers has attracted the attention of some enterprises in the Gulf region, but the strong consumer adoption has not translated into expected increases in business. Most of the organisations we speak to remain unconvinced of the benefits of social enterprise technologies, and as such, they are only investing in certain parts of the solution. IDC’s worldwide studies reveal that the mostly used components of the social enterprise concept include online communities, social learning platforms, public social network marketing activities, content/file sharing, social analytics, collaboration tools, enterprise social network platforms, broadcasting, and recruiting platforms.

We have already seen some progressive enterprises in the Gulf region make extensive use of public social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as a marketing tool. Such platforms present these companies with access to a large consumer pool and enable regular interaction with existing and prospective customers.

Meanwhile, collaboration tools such as unified communications, instant messaging, videoconferencing, and telepresence solutions are also being used by many organisations in the region across various vertical markets to drive internal productivity and reduce costs.

We expect that the adoption of these technologies by enterprises will shift from certain sub-components of the social enterprise concept to the implementation of more comprehensive solutions. Organisations will mostly embrace a phased approach during implementation, preferring to take one step at a time rather than investing in all components in one go.

This is because organisations want to see the return on their initial investments before they start implementing other components. As such, solution providers should work hard to demonstrate the value that can be derived from these solutions, thereby making it easier for organisations to justify these investments internally. Better customer engagement, improved internal productivity, operational efficiency gain, and cost reduction stand out as the key benefits of these solutions.

The benefits and use cases of these solutions may vary depending on business unit and vertical market. Marketing departments, for example, will primarily use these tools to enhance their customer engagement, while HR will use them to scope prospective employees. However, business stakeholders will not use these technologies in a siloed manner. The rationale behind implementing them is to form a cohesive social enterprise, meaning different business units should also be interacting in a productive manner with both their colleagues and their customers.

For example, social analytics tools can be used to identify new sales opportunities, to spot customer complaints, and to measure brand awareness. In this case, customer services, marketing communications, and sales units should be part of the same process, as the insights gathered by these tools may impact them all in one way or another.

In terms of vertical market trends, a telecommunications provider may focus on public social media to track customer activities by mining all the relevant data floating around on these platforms and turning it into meaningful insights for sales and market purposes.

Retail companies, on the other hand, will invest in enhancing their collaboration capabilities so they can interact more effectively with stores, regional offices and headquarters dispersed across a large geographical area. Organizations of all kinds will mostly invest in on-premise social enterprise solutions, although we expect to see an increasing tendency toward cloud-based collaboration, social analytics, and enterprise social network platforms.

In order to achieve an organisation-wide social transformation, IT departments should involve business units across all phases of the initiative. This includes strategy formulation and road map planning, business and IT requirement analysis, process definition, and implementation. Governance of these platforms is also very critical and requires involvement of the executive team and other business stakeholders. Organizations have limited control in the social media arena, particularly over public platforms, as users are free to express their opinions of a brand or business. In addition, employees can post their comments and thoughts on these platforms, which should also be carefully managed.

The misuse of these platforms by employees and negative comments from customers can put organisations into a tight spot. There is the risk that the brand’s reputation may suffer irreparable damage, while the potential also exists for compliance-related issues and loss of intellectual property. Consequently, organisations should prepare their response plans to such threats long before they have the chance to even occur, and they should announce guidelines that clearly explain how employees, partners, and customers should utilise these technologies. In addition, they should perform regular risk assessments to update and/or improve their internal policies and guidelines in this respect.

However, policies and guidelines alone are not enough to create a secure social enterprise environment. Organizations should also invest in IT security technologies to prevent threats such as malware exposure, data loss, and phishing scams. In order to minimise the risks, organisations should also implement security tools that help IT departments to apply more granular rules to certain groups. This will help them control how they interact through these platforms, both within the organisation and with the customer base. In addition, organisations should protect their data, as losing confidential information can potentially have severe legal consequences. And last but certainly not least, investments in endpoint, web, and network security are required to provide better control over web-based transactions and user activities.

The columnist is group vice president and regional managing director for the Middle East, Africa, and Turkey at global ICT market intelligence and advisory firm International Data Corporation (IDC).