Q&A: IBM’s Susan Emerick on What It Means to Be a Social Business


  • By Juliet Stott
  • August 24, 2017
Q&A: IBM’s Susan Emerick on What It Means to Be a Social Business

Susan Emerick leads Global Portfolio Marketing for one of IBM’s divisions. She has been credited with building the tech giant’s global web presence and brand. Emerick is a leading authority on influencer marketing, analytics, and social listening and engagement.

As an adjunct professor at West Virginia University Reed College of Media, she’s developed a course that teaches business leaders how to use data to optimize business, to meet customers at the right time, in the right place and with the right message. In her book, The Most Powerful Brand on Earth, she highlights the power of employee advocacy and thought leadership in building trust and brand advocacy through social media.

Here she talks to Juliet Stott about what a social business is, how companies can become one and the benefits of adopting this approach.


Juliet Stott: What is a social business, and how is it different from other businesses?

Susan Emerick: A social business integrates social into the way it works, empowering a digital workforce. It not only uses collaboration tools to connect and share information, but it also uses them to build communities and expand networks. Organizations that struggle with digital transformation have trouble knowing what to do about social. They define “social” too narrowly, thinking of it in a limited sense of social media, but it’s much broader than that. Social is about self-organizing around a common goal, discovering others with a shared interest, connecting and collaborating while building community through capabilities made possible by the internet and emerging technologies. An explosion of social business emerging technologies has occurred in the last decade. This has improved communications and collaboration from file sharing, instant messaging and ideation tools, to creating compelling customer experiences. I consider all of those social business tools; essentially, they are there to make work easier and more collaborative.


What role do employees play in this new business model? How can companies empower their employees to work in this way?

First and foremost, the business culture has to embrace open collaboration as a cultural dynamic. Once employees are equipped and empowered with that mindset, they can apply these principles to their work. A social business model is about creating an open and transparent working environment, and equipping the workforce to share information, to come together to deliver work collaboratively. This means teams must be empowered to define priorities collectively, as well be able to define how they’re going to achieve the work, provide updates on progress to stakeholders, etc.


What do businesses need to do to become a social enterprise? What internal changes must be made?

Businesses need to commit to digital transformation and to becoming a social business as part of that process. They need to begin by assessing their internal culture and evaluating how adopting these principals could be applied to improve employee and customer engagement. Consider how emerging technologies can be used to address goals such as improving efficiency and productivity and then equip teams with more open and transparent ways of working to achieve those goals.


How long does change take? Who should lead it? How can you get the buy-in?

At IBM it was bidirectional, beginning with a groundswell among the employees as well as commitment from top leaders. It’s something I’ve observed over the last 10 to 15 years. As we are a high-tech company, we are always experimenting and embracing new capabilities to make our work more efficient and streamlined, and we’ve used grassroots adoption efforts to achieve that. At the same time, we’ve had highly engaged leadership supporting this evolution too. 


What are the benefits of becoming a social business? 

Speed, efficiency, productivity, transparency. You get a better work product in the end because it is collaborative in the sense that you’re getting ideas coming from across multidisciplinary teams that are working together. 


Can you give an example of a brand or business that has adopted this new approach? What can we learn from their success? 

I think you’re seeing it in spades in all kinds of tech companies, certainly IBM, but so many emerging tech companies like Google, Salesforce and others are adopting this approach too. This is now a standard method in which we work. As far as other companies investing in this approach, I would say any company, especially small companies that are start-ups, and don’t have a lot of staff and skills, can benefit from social business models because they can tap into the expertise of the community at large. These businesses can tap into social intelligence, broadly shared and publicly available, to help inform their development. They can also use it to test their products in open collaboration, or open user testing. So many opportunities exist for companies, no matter their size, to take advantage and reap the benefits of it. 


What can business leaders learn from your book: “The Most Powerful Brand on Earth: How to Transform Teams, Empower Employees, Integrate Partners and Mobilize Customers to Beat the Competition in Digital and Social Media”?

Essentially, the book was written to provide business leaders with a road map for building a social brand and driving brand advocacy through employee engagement. It offers a step-by-step guide and proven frameworks. It also covers what it takes to equip employees and why it is important to do it, and includes advice on the necessary training, ethics and governance models, and also how to create a community and understand the best practices of using social analytics to discover and engage influencers. The book details how leaders can build a strategic plan, how they can secure investment and how they can develop a pilot which can eventually be scaled.


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About Juliet Stott

Juliet is a former Guardian journalist now freelance journalist, writer & content strategist in York, United Kingdom.

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