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What Businesses Could Learn From the International Olympic Committee

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Recently the International Olympic Committee (IOC) launched the Athletes' Hub, a social media platform designed to bring athletes and fans closer together. A lot has been written about the goals and functionality behind the platform so I won't go over that again; instead I thought it would be interesting to ask why many large businesses don't do the same thing?

The Olympics is a huge and complex entity, with a raft of international stakeholders, corporate partners and vocal detractors, much like many other large organisations. So if they can get a social network off the ground, why can't the others?

The combination of expectation and marketing bluster behind the Olympic effort would be the cynical answer. According to Alex Huot, Head of Social Media at the IOC, the Athletes' Hub is "creating a paradigm shift in the communication around the Olympic Games". Alex went on to say "we are excited to offer this opportunity for greater engagement and interaction between Olympians and their fans." Double line score if you're playing buzzword bingo.

But it's cheap to poke the games. The more realistic answer is that most other larger organisations don't have the compelling subject matter that the IOC have. And it is the compelling subject matter that gives the hub a purpose.

This kind of purpose is all too often lacking within social networks launched by brands, and thankfully many have learnt that launching without any reason for being is asking for failure.

Those that have grasped the concept include Starbucks and Dell; both have pioneered the crowdsourcing community space with My Starbucks Idea and Idea Storm respectively. Others have launched social communities with real benefits for broader communities, like Pepsi's Refresh project and Patagonia's Common Threads Initiative. These spaces thrive through purpose - they actually do something.

But what if large brands and businesses adopted social networking not as a marketing tool, or even as a feedback tool for customers, but simply as a way of connecting their own employees, just like the Athletes' Hub connects the ICO with its athletes? Anyone that has worked in a large organisation will testify to the fact that intranets, community notice boards and email groups are unwieldy failures when it comes to effectively connecting thousands of employees in any meaningful way.

And what business needs a more compelling subject matter than their own employees? This is where the recent buzz around social business has come from - the need and ambition to adopt social networking norms and techniques at a fundamental level throughout a business. Canada's TD Bank is a good example of this; they are currently deploying IBM Connections throughout the business to facilitate company-wide discussions. Aside from improving various areas of the business through innovative suggestions, the sharing of business comms through social media in an internal format means that they're more prepared for external sharing, when regulation allows.

So, going back to the Athletes' Hub, what would this look like in a major business? Imagine for example, a major pharmaceuticals manufacturer, with perhaps a 100,000 employees globally. Rather than seeking out tired old documentation on dusty intranets, or hope for a glimpse of inspiration from the monthly company magazine, new starters could choose to 'follow' particular members of staff based on their department, expertise and/or popularity rating from other employees.

I believe this kind of internal platform will be commonplace in 5-10 years time. Employee demand for new technologies will create it if nothing else. And if an entity as complex and seemingly against sharing as the IOC can launch a social network, I'd like to think anyone can.