Social media and procurement; If you build it, they won’t necessarily come

(In this post, Alex Ranson, our fearless social media expert, gets into a fight with Procurement Leaders! Know who my money's on....You can contact her at alex@beaglethinking.com and follow Twitter @beaglethoughts)

I’ve been meaning for a while to write something on a subject dear to all procurement managers’ hearts:  how to use the wonders of social media to exchange gossip – sorry, valuable market and supplier intelligence - with peers and colleagues in reasonable privacy and security.

And I still am planning to write about that – it’s just going to have to wait for next time.  Because this week I want to pick up on Steve Hall’s recent Procurement Leaders blog, in which he got straight to it and argued that social media isn’t catching on in Procurementsville because it’s pretty useless to non-marketers.

Now, I don’t blame the more hardened cynical brethren among you in the procurement jury for being… well, cynical about social media.  It’s new, young people like doing it, and it’s on TV all the time.  Sounds dodgy already.

But let’s look at Steve’s case for the prosecution, which is:

a) a witness (a friend who apparently knows a lot about social media) who has tried several new tools and then stopped using them after a couple of weeks because they don’t generate enough value.

b) a claim that suppliers and buyers already have adequate tools to communicate – social media doesn’t offer anything new

c) an argument that social media ROI is too hard to calculate unless it’s directly linked to sales

d) the concern that social media isn’t interesting or powerful unless it’s open to all-comers (which would make closed loop or internal-only tools pretty pointless)

(Is that a fair summary, m’lud?)

First off, the defence is quite worried about Steve’s witness – his social media friend.  You MUST have a strategy before you rush off adopting any tools.  What (and whose) problem are you trying to address? Is social media the answer to the problem? Then decide which tool would be the best solution. And finally – what’s your implementation plan? Who will participate? Do you need a facilitator, manager or moderator? How will you sell it in? What management support/internal policy do you need to encourage participation? How can you integrate it with offline and face-to-face communications? Is training required?

Without any of this, I am not altogether surprised that Steve’s friend had a rather lonely and unsatisfying experience trying out some of his new playthings.  Social media is by its nature social – you need other people to come and play. And two weeks is not nearly long enough to lure sufficient people to play with you to make it interesting – let alone to know whether it’s going to be useful.

Secondly, I am far from being sure that suppliers and buyers already have adequate tools to communicate.  Just ask any supplier who’s wrestled with entering data into a screwed-up  (insert name of most hated software here) RFP template whose fields are completely inappropriate for his industry at 11pm the night before submission deadline.  Or a buyer sick of answering the same questions about the screwed up RFP template 12 times from 12 different bidders.

Or a buyer in one small part of the public sector who has no way of knowing whether anyone else in the public sector is experiencing the same problems with sourcing an item/dealing with supplier X/adapting that template.   Social media tools can offer solutions to all these common problems and more.

And how do you know if it’s working?  You’ll know.  But if you need to prove it, which often you do, ask.  Collect feedback through the social media channels themselves. Add a question to 360° CAFs and feedback surveys on communication, information accessibility and relationship quality: has it improved since the introduction of social media tools?  Look at the data, too: sign up and participation rates, both to the tools themselves and also to the initiatives, meetings, conferences, collaborative deals, white papers they promote and develop.

And there, because this is only a blog for the defence, my case must rest for now.  I’d love to know what you, the jury think.

(Some will notice I haven’t tackled Steve’s final point: can and should social media ever be private? I’ll be addressing that in my next post, I promise.)

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