Should CIOs Tweet?

By Allen Bernard

(Back to article)

Almost overnight it would seem Twitter has come out of left field to take over the micro-blogging world (or, depending on your perspective, create it). From CNN to the Fortune 500, Twitter is making huge in-roads into the our culture. You can use it to post whatever's on your mind or search it like a National Security Agency spook to see what is being said about almost anything. You can keep up with ALCS scores or post a change management update ... really, if you think it and can write about in 140 characters or less, you can "tweet" it―complete with links to pics, video and other articles and/or, gulp, other tweets.

So, as the enterprise debate about how to handle this powerful new communications tool gets underway―when to use it, how to use it, who should use it―the question for you, as the CIO, is "Should I use it?" The short answer is a qualified "Yes". If you are a forward-thinking CIO who wants to make their mark, Twitter is probably a good tool for your toolbox. If your more the head's-down type who doesn't really spend a lot of time outside of the data center, then Twitter probably doesn't have a lot to offer you personally. Your service management staff, however, might benefit greatly. Twitter can also help you in other ways without you having to post anything, but more that later. Either way, however, Twitter is something that you, as the CIO, are going to have to understand and deal with.

"It creates a richer personal connection in some ways, but it's virtually impossible to discuss anything in depth," said Stephen Hultquist, a consultant and CIO for hire. "So, you have to realize what it's good at doing" ... and not doing.


Twitter can get you in trouble real fast. There is the story going around of a senior manager working on a FedEx account who, without realizing the power and reach of Twitter, tweeted from his Memphis, Tenn. (home of FedEx corporate) hotel room that if he had to live in "this city" he'd kill himself ... or something to that effect. Well, long story short, that tweet got back to the folks at FedEx and a short time later their agency lost the account. There were probably mitigating circumstances involved but Twitter played a role.

This one example shows the power of this new medium. If he or she had said these things to their spouses in private or even blurted it out in a bar with folks from FedEx in the room nothing probably would have come of it. But they didn't. They used a public medium, readable by anyone, anywhere with Internet access.

"I've definitely see a few of the use cases―everything from industry analysts to executives―who tweeted when they shouldn't and it's led to everything from lawsuits to lost market share," said Jim Haughwout, vice president of Technology and the CIO of Neighborhood America (NA), a enterprsie social networking software development house.

Twitter is not email, but its similar. It's not social networking, but it's similar. It's not SMS, but it's similar. It's not IM but, yes, you guessed it, it's similar. Twitter is all of these things and something all its own. It really is new and it really is powerful. The unrest in Iran over the summer gives you some idea of the power that can come from an Internet-based, public, real-time, instant-messaging, SMS-type platform that is searchable. And maybe that's the key that sets it apart for the others; its searchability.

Because Twitter's API's are open, thousands of developers have written thousands of applications that interface directly with the underlying platform. Search is primary among those and these engines allow you to search the Twitter stream for whatever you want: brand information, personal information, corporate information, product information ... anything, and in real time.

This brings us back the central question: should you tweet and the short answer. Ultimately, you have to decide what you want to get out of the collective stream of consciousness that is Twitter. If you are looking to communicate better with your colleagues, employees and peers, it could help but you have to be careful about what you say and how you say it. Like the early days of email, dashing off a quick, ill-worded reply can get you in trouble (at least in Memphis). Yet, the etiquette is still being worked out as we speak. So, the rule of thumb is the same one you use with any written medium that is public: think before you write and then re-read and think again. "Don't tweet what you think if your secretary," cautions Hultquist.

No matter what you think of Twitter though, you have to be aware of what it is and what it can and can't do, said Chris Curran, CTO at Diamond Management Consulting and an avid Twitterer.

"You've got to understand if it's something that's good or it's something that's bad," he said. "That's another reason for the CIO to understand it: so they can have an informed opinion and not be a chicken little" when the chief marketing officer or CEO comes knocking on the door asking questions.

Gossip, Vendors & Brand Management

Brand management is one of those new catch phrases (well, at least to me, an IT journalist) that has caught on with the rise of social media. The one-way street of advertisers have enjoyed for so long is being turned on its head with the consumer now in control. Corporate America is listening. As the CIO, you are going to be in the hot seat when it comes to explain what effect these tools are having on the corporate brand. The CIOs I spoke with for this article all use it, for example, to see how a particular vendor's products are doing in the market before they commit to using them. That's powerful. They also use Twitter to see how their corporate brand is faring out "there".

"Twitter is a new channel but is the only channel right now that you can put things out there for anyone to see and you can quickly search on what other people are saying and find people that are talking about topics you are interested in," said Haughwout. "Again, it's another vehicle for marketing and communications."

Haughwout also uses Twitter to do informal, non-scientific test marketing. When NA was developing one of its own social networking products recently, Haughwout went on Twitter to see if people were more inclined to use chatting functionality embedded in things like Facebook or if they were more wedded to their AIM accounts. He did this so he could better understand where to build the chat hooks into their product. About 60% of the folks that tweeted back liked the social media-style chat so NA went with that direction. "If you're a Fortune 500 brand you're probably large enough to get the equivalent of a focus group."

CIO-for-hire Hultquist uses Twitter to get action on problems he is having with vendors. He'll tweet that is having problems with some product or other and, if the company is large enough and are listening, they often as not, respond. "I might post a tweet saying 'I'm dealing one more time with company A' or 'I can't believe how poor this product is'."


Perhaps most of all, said Hultquist, Twitter is a collaboration tool. One that is breaking down barriers between leaders and those they lead. This is especially important going forward. As the baby boomers and the vertical hierarchy they've worked under since WWII retire, the Gen X, Y and Millennial generations are taking over. They work in a much flatter, less loyal business world where who you know and who knows you is more important than how long you worked at Company X or Y. In this world, leaders need to adopt different leadership styles; styles based more on collaboration and sharing than fiat. Twitter can help with that effort.

"If they want to be the old-fashion, authoritarian leader then, no, it's not going to be helpful to them," he said. "But, if they understand that that doesn't work very well anymore and what is much more workable is a collaborative approach to leadership I think it's a good tool for that.

"What were learning is you can't hide anything," he continued. "So, the myth you are in control somehow because you have knowledge that others don't have, is really harmful to you as a leader. So, instead, flip it on it's head and develop trusting relationships with your staff and the people you support in ways that have you show up as a human being; as somebody that wants to collaboratively work with them, I think (Twitter) is a good tool for that."