December 2009

Surface key to social network success

By Jim Cahill

"Whether it is black holes, nanotechnology, or chocolate-the information content relates to the surface area, not the volume." This quote from the great inventor Dick Morley, best known in our industry as the father of the PLC, has stuck with me ever since I heard his ISA Marketing & Sales Summit presentation two years ago.

According to Nielsen, the growth of communications through social media applications such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, wikis, and blogs is rapidly expanding.

So what do these two points have in common? As the author of the Emerson Process Experts blog and a participant in these social media communications channels, I agree it is about the surface. It is at our organizations' respective surfaces where talented people need to connect with one another to more quickly solve problems and advance our businesses.

This belief goes against the traditional notions that people should interact with other people through approved channels in organizational hierarchies. Of course, informal peer-to-peer communications have always been around, but they are limited by their reach. The problem with this traditional approach is the time it takes to connect the people facing the issues at hand with the people whose expertise can help them solve these issues.

Google and the other search engines have changed our expectations of how quickly we should be able to get answers to questions. These search engines provide a list of possible answers in seconds amongst the estimated 22.8 billion pages they crawl. If only the expertise in all the great minds in our automation business were part of this index. A tiny fraction is, but most is not. It is buried in e-mail inboxes and sent items folders.

If these search engines do not provide the quick answers your customers and prospective customers are seeking, I suggest you get more of your talented people out to the surface.

But isn't it somewhat frightening to bring them out to the surface? The risks might seem plentiful-exposing legal liability, losing the most talented people to other organizations, and upsetting the well-established status quo. Some of you, like me, who have been around awhile may recall these worries when e-mail made its appearance. Somehow, we made it past these fears to see e-mail become the most used form of business communication. So too have companies such as IBM, who have developed, communicated, and shared with the rest of us comprehensive social media policies.

Here is why encouraging your talented people to get out to the surface of your organizations and participate in social media, should they choose to, is your best course of action. I offer these ideas from the company and individual's perspectives. Many of these thoughts come from a recent presentation, "How to Thrive in Chaos," which my colleague, Deb Franke, and I gave to automation professionals.

Become more visible. The more your business can get your talented people to the surface using social media applications, the more quickly this expertise moves from e-mail inboxes out to where others can more easily discover it. As a result, you increase the digital footprint of your organization's overall expertise and the probability it will intersect with those seeking that expertise-resulting in more business activity.

Demonstrate listening. The approach of trying to make more noise to gain the attention of others is losing its effectiveness. Defenses such as digital video recorders, radio pushbuttons, browser ad-blockers, and the like are empowering those on the receiving end to block these one-way messages.

Participation in social media provides a channel to connect people directly with other people and provide a way to respond rapidly to issues, questions, and opportunities. Instead of period research and other occasional listening channels, businesses that allow their talented people out to the surface listen in real time-all the time.

Develop thought leadership. People are drawn to others who are interesting and passionate about the areas in which they have authoritative knowledge. Businesses and individuals benefit when these people in their organizations amplify their expertise through social media channels. Persistent and consistent participation in specific areas of expertise creates thought leadership. This builds trust in those seeking this expertise, which builds business opportunities.

Find answers faster. What about the information not easily found in a quick search, such as much of the expertise found in the automation industry? Your fastest path to the information you need to solve the issue at hand, if a Google search does not get a quick answer, is to ask others in your social network.

3Com founder Robert Metcalfe quantified this effect, and his Metcalfe's Law states, "The value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2)." Not only does the value of your social network grow as you connect with others who have similar expertise, it grows exponentially.

With the turbulence in global economic conditions, the comfort of the status quo might seem like the safest path. In reality, the organizations first to recognize and act on the importance of getting their experts to the surface will be the ones who not only survive but thrive.


Jim Cahill ( is chief blogger at Emerson Process Management in Austin, Tex.