"Special Requests" Bogging You Down? Social Media to the Rescue

Last Updated Oct 6, 2010 1:15 PM EDT

Handling exceptions and special requests is one of the great challenges of the modern organization. The existing infrastructure -- systems, training, processes -- are set up in large part to manage the routine transaction. Just finding the right person who can deal with a customer's exceptional request can take hours.

Up to two-thirds of headcount time in major enterprise functions like marketing, manufacturing and supply chain management is spent on handling exceptions, according to John Hagel III and John Seely Brown in their HBR.org blog post, The Enterprise Value of Social Software.

"Whether it is a customer that requires non-standard financing terms, a brand manager who needs to find the code for an unusual pallet configuration, or a software developer trying to resolve an issue in code that has multiple dependencies -- each is an example of where traditional enterprise applications are insufficient and standard operating processes break."
Here is where social software can make a mark in the enterprise, they argue. Successful exception handling relies on tacit rather than explicit knowledge. The answer resides with people, not in a document or an org chart. What is social media great at? Creating a network of people full of tacit knowledge.
"Social software allows the user to reach out to a large number of relevant participants and bring them into a virtual discussion around a specific problem or challenge, so tacit knowledge is shared and new knowledge is created. But social software also captures, and makes searchable, these informal conversations."
As a coordinator and promoter of informal networks, social media is making a case for a place in business alongside e-mail, calendars and productivity apps. I wrote recently about Charlene Li, who believes top executives should be using these tools to communicate one-on-one with people far below them on the org chart.

In what ways do you think organizations could use social software in better ways?

(Image by flickr user luc legay, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.