The benefits of the business side of social media

Dr Susan Grant of Brunel University
posted by Susan Grant
25 November 2016

Unlike Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, business social networking ‘behind the firewall’ is in its infancy. Yet, early testing of collaborative networking is already providing value, particularly in the supply chain, says Susan Grant.

In markets that exhibit turbulence and uncertainty, such as insurance, informal knowledge sharing across a supply chain can enable truly agile responses for customers. Connecting the expertise of participants could lead to improved customer service, supply chain collaboration and performance.

In 2014, global insurers RAS, with Brunel University, set up Knownet, a pilot peer-to-peer social networking platform across its home and pet insurance supply chain, providing blogging and messaging facilities for invited suppliers, RSA and Brunel. The aim was to improve efficiency, reduce errors and break down silos.

Informal communication, which had before only really happened during focussed workshops or meetings, was instantly taken to a wider, controlled audience. Knownet users were able to use the platform to discuss topics such as customer service and feedback, IT issues within the supply network, local regulation and apprenticeship training.

Today, Knownet continues beyond its 18-month trial period, with more than 30 companies involved – mostly direct suppliers to UK property claims – and almost 300 users. There are now six groups covering specific areas of interest, such as the Field Operations Supply Chain Group, where 89 users exchange weather updates, advice, product launches, and case studies. Across all groups, interactive practices and activities have emerged, including sharing customer service stories, a forum for Q&A, an open discussion medium, and sharing examples of good and best practice. 

As people get to know each other, the platform has strengthened a sharing context, where users learn, interpret other people’s questions, problems, ask for ideas, and add input. The project indicates that social media tools are an effective device to disseminate and reinforce a strong customer centric strategy using rewards, league tables and net promoter scores. From the large number of links posted and files downloaded, we can also see the need for a repository for easy to access information.

Overall, the posts are positive, informal and chatty offering varying degrees of detail and substance. However, the platform is still regarded with some suspicion – seen by the resistance to reveal some detail and some vendors withhold knowledge exchanges in fear of competitive advantage. We expect this to diminish as users become more accustomed to posting.

When questioned, users reported that the top reason for engaging was to learn from others. They agreed (albeit mildly) that they had fostered new connections, and many felt that joining the ‘conversation’ has facilitated goodwill and openness.

They discussed and shared learning on topics ranging from customer service schemes, member expertise and claims processes to other vendors, initiatives, awards and broad areas such as regulation. Some had made changes as a result. Noted benefits included being able to advertise something, post a question, publish supply chain league tables and engage in discussion forums.

The process has been enlightening in a number of ways, not the least being the requirements for launch and use of the system by the principal. It is essential to develop the platform as a top down, clear business need. A willingness to share from the supplier base is needed, and effective uptake depends on champions and enthusiasts at the user level.

We also learned that social media platforms are appropriated by the users, and determining the way a social networking extranet is to be used will not necessarily lead to desired results.

This project is quite an achievement, given the need for inter-company collaboration. To prove the effectiveness and justify the effort and cost now requires more examples.

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