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Social networking – the buyer's white whale


07-Mar-12 12:02

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn must be very exciting for the corporate world. Not just because they can see all the potential clients and business partners gathering in one space, but they can see the power that individual voices can wield in this space. For procurement, however, it’s been years of bright ideas and yet the same stumbling blocks are still there.

 

Yes, it’s somewhat perverse for someone in the media to be taking this stance – I mean, I am one of those people who checks Twitter everyday. And yes, this’ll be tweeted, retweeted and posted hither and thither. Moreover, I’m sure that there’s a generation of buyers eager to engage with social media in their commercial roles. But I’m still not convinced of everything that’s being said of the medium and I think it’s necessary to have a degree of scepticism here.

 

Take Supply Management’s recent SM100 poll in which 51% of respondents replied that they (or their department) did use social media to help with their day job. The telling adjunct to this is the further response that said that, for most procurement professionals, there was no social media strategy.

 

IACCM’s Tim Cummins recently posted a thoughtful piece on the ways that contracting can learn from the movements of social networking – particularly he highlights both the ‘partner selection’ capabilities of social sites and the ability of some sites to offer personalised recommendations based on data.

 

Bundled in with this is the idea that buyers can use social media to learn more about their suppliers and, again, make decisions based upon what they find.

 

I’d argue that this final idea probably explains a great deal of the current use of social media in buying organisations - the kind that would count in the poll question by SM. If your boss asks you to find out about potential business partners, of course you’re going to tap every source available and various social media profiles are one of those.

 

Equally, as a medium to share and interact with other buyers and managers, social media is rivalled only by face-to-face interaction.

 

But here’s where I think the usefulness starts to run thin, especially when you press on this question of contracting and supplier selection.


You can’t trust social media. It’s a presentation, a facade. Which is great, but if you want to implement sophisticated selection criteria or relationship management techniques, the best I think you can say is that you can flesh out your understanding of a business partner through their appearance on social networks. But you can probably do that anyway whether or not you’re on a social networking site – how much do you really learn through what they’re prepared to put onto a social networking site?


It’s not standardised. Your supplier might be on Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever – but those aren’t the sort of places where they’re going to divulge much and they’re very limited in terms of the kinds of interactions you can have with them. The kind of information you need to make more than a passing judgement needs a more specialised tool. But the problem with these tools is that they rely on adoption. Facebook and Twitter are only useful because *everyone* is on there. But as a company, it would be a huge effort to drive the adoption of a tool you’ve endorsed – would there really be ROI on that kind of project?


It doesn’t do anything new. Well, that’s not true, social media offers reach and engagement like nothing else. But what you want from it – at least as far as contracting and selection go – are things that you can find elsewhere in the myriad sophisticated tools available to procurement functions.

 

So, sure, the use of social networks in contracting needs the big step forward that Jason Busch talks about in his follow up piece over on Spend Matters. But those same barriers would still be there and the question hanging over it all has to be – is it worth it?

 

Which is why it’s a white whale. It’s something businesses chase with enthusiasm, something they see huge potential in, but it’s ultimately it’s not procurement’s fight.

 

But, seeing as we all agree it’s the future, one way or another, maybe we should argue it out on Twitter (@thestephenhall).


Steve Hall Steve Hall is Editor at Procurement Leaders. Steve oversees the publication of Procurement Leaders Magazine and draws on a decade in business publishing, providing quality coverage to senior business leaders. Follow Steve on Twitter: @thestephenhall

 
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