What's being called "social media" in the work context is a blur of public and private networking, collaboration and productivity platforms that connect people, sometimes inside the enterprise, sometimes outside the enterprise, sometimes both.

Looking to make more sense of this, a pair of senior analysts from Saugatuck Technology, a consulting/research firm known lately for examining cloud and service technologies, conducted a survey that Information Management participated in.

Saugatuck VP Mike West and SVP Bruce Guptil were lead creators and analysts looking at the what, how and why of "social business technology" -- Saugatuck's chosen term -- as it exists today.

Saugatuck's definition, which you'll find near the top of the story, is about personal, business-centered interaction, and includes everything from public platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, to corporate tools like Chatter and Yammer. They also looked at blogs and wikis and document collaboration tools.

There are lots of ways to set boundaries around social media. Our own editors see the space usually characterized by active people to people connections around a bit of information that tends to be move back and forth iteratively, if not synchronously. There's often some kind of search or index or file directory supporting these sharing tools and platforms. 

But it's clear West and Guptil are onto something we can learn from so we sat down to dig into their thinking about some of the human behavior behind the social media phenomenon.  

One of the findings in the survey was that business executives are more experienced using social business technologies than their IT counterpart execs. Why so?

Mike West, VP and distinguished analyst with Saugatuck Technology: It's not very surprising that innovation over the last 20 years has come in through the bathroom window via the business executive looking to get his job done in a way that's different from how IT thinks. Just one example, there was an article from the 1950s in Harvard Business Review about differences between business and IT executives. Even way back then it was found that IT executives were much more "structured" as individuals and very process oriented, whereas business executives were very results oriented. Today, business executives [are going to] use whatever it takes to get the job done without that much concern for formal process whereas IT executives are more about formal process. Structured technologies like transaction technologies are easy to understand and manage for efficiency and that's like an emblem for the IT executive. But something like social media with no real defined model for payback -- even though it might provide real economic advantage -- is more appealing to the business executives who tend to adopt these things first. 

Bruce Guptil, SVP and head of research at Saugatuck Technology: This kind of observation is not unusual with a new type of IT that users find and latch onto. Personal computing was a similar thing, if you can see a use for something, get it and afford it, you will. It's really taken off with the consumerization of IT, with all the changes and point solutions in desktop computing, smartphones and mobile. Almost all of this comes in from the individual user or consumer side first and that's where the social technologies and IT comes in. People find Facebook and instant messaging, all kinds of apps on their smartphones, they use conferencing daily in their own lives and social lives and it's cheap or free so that's how it gets in. These people know that if they go through internal purchasing they have to go through evaluation, get all the formal stuff done. They're more interested in getting it now and even if they don't expense it it's no big deal.

And then the IT curse, if they are doing their job as they're trained, is that an audit trail appears and needs to be brought in house and assimilated and made compliant. They can't just cut off behavior on the network because of the way people work now and the way they are connected on devices. What has that created?

Mike West: There's clearly a frustration factor being generated in IT offices by business executives. The IT guys are throwing their hands in the air, it's just not working and they can't do IT like they used to. That has to be very frustrating for them but they also can't be holding things up by saying 'stop.' They have to find a way to manage even though it's not easy.

Bruce Guptil: For the last eight years Saugatuck has put out a State of the Cloud series of reports, what's changing or is going to change. A couple of years ago Mike and I were the primary authors, and the title of our report was, "Lead, Follow, AND get out of the way." That's what this is all about in the social context. At our Cloud Summit event it was the IT leaders from Fortune 50 companies standing in front of the room saying just that, old models don't work in a cloud based consumer easy access model. We have to set examples and lead practices that work and don't get in the way. We have to follow by understanding what it is our leaders are trying to do. We're not going to stop them unless we lock them up, they'll just keep doing it because they need results now and they get that with social business IT.

We have all seen this phenomenon in spreadsheets and simple databases too that were more about siloed information. Now it's also about people wanting to integrate data from relatively simple apps and that creates all kinds of data management and compliance problems along the way, right?

Bruce Guptil: That's part of the problem IT leaders as a group try to follow and see what kinds of applications and providers they can engage and manage and integrate at some point. And they also have to give some guidance and guidelines and know executives are still going to grab what their sources give them or what's available. It's going to be up to the organization and leaders to explain the 'what' and 'why.' IT leaders have to help them make it work and learn to catch them and support them when they fail.

I sense a lot of executives excited and believing that social technologies can be brought to bear on the top line of their financial performance.

Bruce Guptil: That's true, the results we saw in the survey are very top line and very user facing. But they're not yet very customer facing, which is surprising when you think about what everybody is doing with Twitter and Facebook. Most respondents first want to build and share knowledge internally, improve collaboration internally, support marketing by building internal mechanisms. The same goes for customer service in the form of internal goals. The first thing to do is improve the way we do business and we do that by improving collaboration and availability of information.

Mike West: Also, the whole range of social tools from wikis to collaboration and all the networks, these things are unstructured and yet a way of sharing knowledge across the base. For professionals doing tasks and looking for information, the network is immediately usable. It can be a tremendous advantage for me to post a question and have five people post responses or refer me somewhere and this helps me do my job.

And like you said, the survey found, contrary to what you read, that outside the firewall social implementations are behind internal social projects though we come across 'live' help and support online.

Mike West: There are certainly examples and opportunities with customers and customer support suites, things like that. Airlines are very quick and responsive to tweets and they respond to those. With that kind of consumer interaction with airlines or large merchants, there is a way to insert pressure and respond pretty powerfully, but yes, it is early.

Bruce Guptil: As fast as things are happening, we haven't even reached adolescence. With universal browser applications and devices, we see a pretty short-term focus. The best we can do [now] is see how people use these technologies and what the next steps and uses are. The vast majority of social business IT used today is in a point solution that's not integrated into other things. It's remarkable to find social business IT implementations that are linked with others. At the same time, it's so interesting to find things that are effective in some places and just imagine what the next couple of years might demand. And the IT leaders are going to say, 'sure, give me an unlimited budget and I can deliver.'

You talk about dominant vendor brands in areas of technology as "master brands." How should we think about the way big vendors will affect the space?

Mike West: A couple of master brands have pushed into this field noticeably, we've seen murmurs from R&D and other groups within Oracle, but only Microsoft and IBM have delivered something to their customer base that's been adopted in any scale at all. There will be an opportunity here for those master brands that have lagged to make acquisitions and incorporate more capabilities.

Bruce Guptil: Among the vendors in our study, it's not about who IS most powerful, but who's seen that way over the next few years. It's very likely that a lot of master brands will acquire startups for their platform-based products. But, the names that are up there in the survey, Google, Facebook, these are the social brand names that are consumer facing. It's about desktop success. Nobody markets better than Salesforce.com and Microsoft is on everybody's desktop. If you're a professional you use LinkedIn and probably Twitter. There is a clean break between those screen-share vendors and then IBM and Cisco, now you are looking at tech oriented providers. It's not a perfect separation, it's more about top of mind.

HP recently made a big deal about moving into information management. We've been thinking about how much of their consumer business carries to social technology thinking for business too. How do you feel about that?

Bruce Guptil: The social revolution had a lot to do with that. It raises the use and need for unstructured data of a variety of types. If you have a cloud ability to manage, stage, coordinate, store that kind of thing you will be an extremely powerful kind of master brand when it comes to how businesses come to work within another 2 to 5 years. For lack of a better term, we call HP an 'arms dealer for the cloud.' It's servers, management software, storage and those kinds of capabilities are critical not just for the cloud but for the fastest growing implementations for business.

Mike West: It's an example of how these technologies are transforming the way people look at work, and dissolving the barriers between the work and personal life just like PCs and handhelds did. People start to do little bits of work over the weekend because they don't engage deeply. You can monitor with very little time and investment what's going on in a project if it's being tracked in a social business technology, and if you're traveling, you have immediacy and access with mobile devices and with centralized cloud based solutions everybody plays into. I think it's doing a major job of transforming and driving a revolution in the way work is done.

More people seem to be comfortable with and demanding approved use of personal devices, BYOT or bring your own technology. I heard the CIO of Charles Schwab saying companies can increase executive use of BI by building simple apps on tablets and handing them out to the C-level. Do you think that changes the IT equation?

Bruce Guptil: One of our analysts on the West Coast does a lot in the consumer digital space around offloading software responsibilities from the end users. It's going to be kind of scary for us old players. It's something we couldn't afford to do it on an individual problem-solving basis until the last few years with all kinds of cloud technologies and the many affordable ways of accessing it on different devices. The boundaries between IT and users aren't what they used to be. Mike [West] talks about the "boundary-free enterprise" and another of our guys likes to talk about "free-range computing." We have to bring all that together, get the holistic view or gestalt to really understand how this social stuff is going to evolve from providers and how it's used. We always need to reduce our cost and improve productivity in our group.

Mike West: There is also the generational view of workers. Most of the people in control are still Gen X people. The anointed ones are Gen Y. The Gen Z or Millennials are now in the workplace and they are the ones who have brought in most of this technology and are flourishing with it. If the last 20 years was once a castle and moat with everything provided internally, now the moat is gone. You have an open network without the shield around it and there is anxiety about security and other things, but now you have and can make use of resources on the Internet much more cheaply than if you tried to build it. You can make use of consultants and work with business partners externally and interact more fluidly than you did. Your interactions with customers and suppliers are equally fluid through a kind of Swiss cheese firewall where we are all on the network. The organization becomes a virtual integration of what resources are provided and what can be networked outside. The Gen X guys might be the ones who don't get why social business technologies are helpful and Gen Y people are maybe also puzzled, but it's the millennials who are coming into their own and the next five or 10 years will be a sea change in how organizations are managed.