Make the Social Network Work for the Supply Chain

Social media offer new opportunities, as well as risks, for the supply chain — and supply chain executives


The focus on personal professional advancement was evident in responses to the question about the importance of social media to one's career. While social networking sites are still relatively new, more than one-third (36 percent) of respondents said that the sites were "very important" to their career, and another third (33 percent) said that sites were "somewhat important." Just 7 percent said that the sites were "not at all important" to their careers. In comparison, 15 percent said that social media were "very important" to performing one's job, while 44 percent rated the new social tools as "somewhat important." (See Illustration 3 — click here to open in new window/tab.) Those figures are likely to rise in the future in light of the responses to the question, "How do you see your use of Social Media tools as part of your job increasing in the future?" Four in ten (38 percent) respondents said that their use of the tools on the job would be "increasing significantly," while 43 percent responded "somewhat increasing." Notably, no one saw decreasing use of social media for the job in the future. (See Illustration 4. — click here to open in new window/tab.)

Tools of Engagement

Justin Fogarty believes it's only natural that Supply Chain practitioners are turning to social media sites as part of their jobs. Of course, social media is a big part of Fogarty's job as online community manager for Ariba, the provider of spend management and business commerce solutions. He oversees Ariba's customer community called Ariba Exchange, as well as five separate LinkedIn groups — the largest of which, Strategic Sourcing & Procurement, includes more than 23,000 members globally.

Supply Chain practitioners are constantly looking for new sources of intelligence, whether on market conditions, competitors, or current or potential suppliers, Fogarty notes. So it's to be expected that they would be looking beyond their own organizations and beyond the circle of people that they know to find credible sources of information. "You have your network of peers and colleagues, and you might have events that you go to every year and other offline ways that you connect with peers. But that might not be enough. They might not have the information that you need, or they might not have information that you find credible. Or it might be that they are not using the same tools as you. So there are any number of reasons that you might go looking for a broader group."

Tools like LinkedIn groups or vendor-managed sites like Ariba Exchange or BravoSolution Education Network give us the opportunity to engage with, and get answers from, sources that offer different perspectives than what we might be used to within our circle of friends and colleagues. The vendor-managed sites can be particularly useful, Fogarty asserts, because they offer a largely spam-free setting in which users can obtain tips on how to take advantage of specific functionality within a solution from other users just like themselves. "These platforms are intended to facilitate that type of discussion, so you don't have to wait for the next user conference to get an answer to your question," he says.

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"Devastatingly Effective"

The kinds of intelligence and insights that can be gleaned from social media can be surprising, according to Brian Sommer, president of technology research firm Vital Analysis, a part of TechVentive, Inc. LinkedIn, for example, can be useful for tracking executives at a strategic supplier. If key leaders suddenly begin updating their profiles to reflect new jobs, including jobs with competitors of the supplier, a supply organization should take note and start looking at the health of that supplier.

Sommer also points to sites like Slideshare.net and Scribd.com, which allow users to post presentations online for anyone to download. It can be surprising to discover, for example, that competitor or supplier executives have given presentations at trade shows revealing business plans, strategic initiatives or detailed information about company financials. Often the executives who gave the presentation doesn't even have any idea that the conference posted the presentation online via the event's Web site. All this information can be readily found using a few simple searches on Google, Sommer says.

In general, the proliferation of online news sites, blogs and other media channels has opened up a Pandora's box of information available at no charge. "With what you can find out for free, it's almost like, 'shame on you for not looking," Sommer offers. And yet many people aren't aware of the sources, or haven't yet made the effort to begin exploiting them, according to Sommer. He continues: "A lot of people think that it takes a long time to pull this kind of information together, but it really doesn't. The problem is that people don't have the time or patience — or just have never tried — to make a discipline out of it. But many people just aren't aware of how much information is out there. You only need to know a handful of search optimization parsing rules and you can be devastatingly effective."

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