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Social Sounds Sweet To A Symphony's CIO

San Francisco Symphony's CIO explains why IT departments can't stay in the wings while their organizations push for more honest feedback from customers.

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Social networking in the enterprise may be the bane of many IT professionals' existence, but it's music to the ears of San Francisco Symphony CIO Michael Skaff.

Skaff, who has been with the symphony for almost four years, believes that many IT departments--and organizations in general--are in the middle of an evolution toward, first, acceptance of social networking as more than just a time-waster and bandwidth hog and, then, active support and facilitation of the technology.

"There are still organizations and people who think about social networking as a pure time-waster," said Skaff. "I think we're in the middle of this period of evolution, where people have really started to recognize the branding, PR, communications, and outreach benefits of social media and social networking--even, in some cases, the revenue side benefits. More and more, people in IT and across the organization have really started to recognize the merits."

[Is your organization at risk from employee social media use? Learn more; see Social Insecurity: 64% Of IT Pros Cite Serious Threat]

The symphony's first foray into social networking was its presence on the Ning social networking platform (recently acquired by Glam Media). There, said Skaff, patrons, customers, and interested parties could have a discussion around the symphony, which is celebrating its centennial this year. Skaff said the Ning site allowed the symphony to test the waters and see what resonated with people and what they wanted to talk about.

Fast forward to the present, and the San Francisco Symphony is active on Facebook and Twitter. The symphony has also made use of location-based services using Foursquare, as well as social discount sites such as Groupon). The symphony has started to tie into mobile, with a newly launched iPhone app and a mobile-optimized website with links to social networking functionality.

Skaff said all of these social mechanisms are designed to extend the experience of its audience and to get that audience to engage with the symphony. Skaff said organizations need to recognize that conversations about them are going on whether they have a dedicated social presence or not, so it makes sense to join the conversation as much as possible. "The conversation is going to happen, so we should be participating in it actively," said Skaff. "It is in our best interest to really get out there and engage with the public across these channels."

Many organizations are nervous about the hot potatoes that are negative comments posted on social networking sites, but Skaff looks at that "public honesty" as an opportunity.

"People ask me, 'What are we going to do when we get a negative comment on Twitter?'" he said. "My response is, 'Talk to them, engage them.' This is sort of a new era of honesty. It's very public honesty. But if you can have that conversation around a negative topic, you can transform the conversation into a very positive outcome by engaging and addressing concerns directly. People appreciate the fact that you are willing to converse with them. It can turn out to be an amazing success story."

Skaff is clearly an advocate for social networking in the enterprise, and he's also an active player in social networking strategy at his organization. He said it's important for IT professionals to recognize that marketing and PR typically are--and should be--the point department for social media, but that IT should not be on the sidelines. "The PR team leads our social media efforts in the content space, and marketing uses social media for promotion," he said. "I provide advice in terms of letting them know about new platforms, the ways we might engage, etc. It has been a very successful partnership."

As with any good partnership, balance is key. While facilitating marketing's and PR's use of social media, Skaff must ensure that employees are using the technology properly and that the symphony's intellectual property and customer data are tightly secured.

In terms of the former, social networking is woven into the symphony's acceptable use policy. "Basically," said Skaff, the policy says that we are actively choosing not to block social networking, but that we expect people to be professional in interactions with the public and that they may be seen as an extension of the symphony. They are told to use best judgment and, if there are questions, to defer to the public relations department." Skaff added that employees who post on behalf of the company are also guided in social networking do's and don'ts by marketing and PR.

As far as data security, Skaff said he hasn't added any new measures to mitigate risk associated with social media use because the organization's existing systems provide adequate protection.

"We have already protected the important information we have to protect, such as credit card data and personal information, and we continue to focus on that," he said. "We have a robust proxy and filtering mechanism, so we're protecting ourselves from a liability standpoint and from a security standpoint."

At the end of the day, he added, it's his job--and the job of everyone in the organization--to make existing customers happy and to attract new customers.

"The consumer is telling us how they want to interact with us, and we're doing our best to listen." Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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