Students Turn Social Media Skills into Social Business Strategy

San Jose State University and IBM partner in a real-world project to help students translate their Facebook and Twitter prowess into powerful business strategies.

It's no secret that Gen Y lives and breathes social media. And while some businesses consider it a time-sink, others are looking to capitalize on this generation's skills to further its business goals. That's where Larry Gee, a professor at San Jose State University, comes in.

Last year, Gee and IBM partnered to pilot a program that helps students turn their social networking savvy into real-world, business-ready skills.

The program, called "The Great Mind Challenge" (TGMC), has been wildly popular in India, with more than 100,000 students participating since 2004, according to IBM. SJSU is the first institution in the U.S. to adopt it.

"Students use Facebook and Twitter for personal purposes all the time," Gee says. "The goal was to help them realize that they can go into the workplace and connect the dots to apply their social media skills to the business to benefit them. It's an emerging area that's getting bigger and bigger."

Social business, while still in its infancy, is gaining more traction in the marketplace. In its report "Social Enterprise Apps Redefine Collaboration," Forrester Research predicts that the market for social enterprise applications will grow at a rate of 61 percent through 2016, reaching $6.4 billion. In 2010, it was a $600 million market.

IBM paired SJSU with Group Business Software (GBS), an IBM business partner. Over the course of the semester, 96 students from Gee's management information systems classes, along with biotech and management graduate students, were grouped into teams to assess GBS's social networking and collaboration techniques, and to devise a plan to help the company better embrace social business.

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Having a mix of students involved was important, Gee says, because he didn't want the challenge to be technical-scripting-based. His goal was something that was more cross-disciplinary so the students could learn how social business affects the whole company and not just IT.

"We wanted to give students an unstructured, real-life problem to solve where they had to get on the phone and dig for information and drill down," Gee says. "Say you're in the CIO's office and a marketing or HR person comes to you and says, 'I read about this thing called social business. How can we effectively use that in our organization?' That's what they're trying to solve."

To help students gather information for their assessments, GBS provided a dedicated sponsor who was available every week for Q&A sessions, webinars, phone calls and email conversations. IBM also provided the students with access to both social business experts with whom they could collaborate and the cloud-based environment through which the program took place.

Using these resources, Gee's students performed social business assessments, specifically looking at GBS's marketing environment, how it collaborated internally and built connections with suppliers.

The second phase, Gee says, focused on building prototypes to model what GBS should be doing, ultimately resulting in a social business plan that they presented at the end of the semester. Gee and GBS chose the teams with the best solutions and presentations.

GBS, Gee says, is applying some of the students' recommendations within their business right now. These include suggestions for making better use of blogs, videos, a better flow of information and collaboration improvements.

"This was a great way for students to preview what will happen within the next strategic period of how businesses will operate," Gee says. "Social business is laying the foundation of how future leaders will operate in the next generation."

Kristin Burnham covers consumer technology, social networking and enterprise collaboration for CIO.com. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kmburnham. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Kristin at kburnham@cio.com

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