July 14, 2014
Column | techwatch

Want better workplace collaboration? Use social media

Is your team taking too long to solve problems or complete projects? Social media tools might speed up the process.

By James A. Cooke

When most folks think of social media, they think of personal communication: Using Facebook to get in touch with friends. Or sharing information with fellow hobbyists on a wiki website.

But social media tools can also facilitate business communication. For example, logistics professionals could use them to collaborate with colleagues across the globe and work together to solve distribution problems. "With social media, we can implement a social model of collaboration," consultant and social media proponent Tony Martins told me. Martins himself began using social media while working as a supply chain executive for a pharmaceutical company before becoming a consultant. "When social media [are] used to solve problems, what we see is that people of multiple skills react spontaneously to posted issues and the stream of conversations that ensue from the posting of problems leads to their solutions."

Generally, social media refers to networking websites like LinkedIn, collaborative project sites like Wikipedia, or content communities like YouTube, all of which are considered "Web 2.0" technologies. But companies can set up their own special websites, using software like Jive, SharePoint, or eXo Platform to create a space for folks to exchange messages in real time and post documents for all group members to view, no matter where they're located.

One supply chain software company—Manhattan Associates—has even developed a way (dubbed SCOPE Social) to connect the dashboard portals in its applications with an enterprise social networking tool, Yammer. "By linking a social networking tool to a dashboard, that promotes sharing that information," says Peter Schnorbach, a senior director for product management at Manhattan. For instance, if a logistics application's dashboard indicated a problem had developed with a shipment, a manager could share that information with co-workers right away and solve the problem.

Logistics managers could also use these technologies to set up a "resolution team" to solve a specific problem, says Theodore Garcia, an executive vice president at FilmTrack. During a recent Supply Chain Council presentation on using Web 2.0 to enable a "connected supply chain," Garcia offered the example of a team established to tackle the problem of repeated delivery delays. The group would meet in an online session to review the matter and devise a solution. One advantage to this approach is that the team members sitting in front of their computers have ready access to data and documents pertinent to the problem.

The use of social media can speed up the problem-solving process because team members spread across the world don't have to make multiple phone calls after searching for relevant data. They can also take advantage of online tools to set up a timeline for action and to centralize documents in an online repository for all team members to access in real time.

Martins, for one, believes that social media are more effective than traditional communication channels because the use of this technology breaks down organizational barriers that might have inhibited problem solving in the past. In his view, the hierarchical structure prevalent in most companies makes it difficult for people at the top and the bottom of an organization to discuss issues freely. Social media creates a community of equals in which managers can interact and exchange ideas without those constraints.

Despite the potential for social media to promote supply chain and logistics collaboration, few companies have embraced the idea. "It's still early in the curve," says Schnorbach. "Younger people think it makes sense, but people comfortable with social networking tend to be younger. A lot of management is still not comfortable with it. But that's all starting to change."

About the Author

James A. Cooke
Editor at Large
James Cooke has more than two decades' experience as a journalist covering logistics and transportation as well as supply chain strategy and technology. A former editor at Logistics Management magazine, he has earned numerous awards for his well-written, in-depth articles spotlighting developments in distribution. During his tenure at that publication, he served in such roles as news editor, international editor, feature writer, technology editor, and, finally, executive editor. He conceived and led the launch of the publication, Supply Chain Management Review. He is the author of the book Protean Supply Chains published by Wiley. He has presented at such conferences as CSCMP, MHIA, and WERC.

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