Most board members are aware of the sweeping changes that social technologies have brought about in our everyday lives. A recent survey shows that just over half of those at the very highest levels in companies claim to have a good understanding of the impact of social media on their business. Indeed, approximately two thirds use it for both business and personal purposes.
Yet the same study shows that only 8 per cent received board reports on social media and that 47per cent of companies do not collect this information at all.
So why do boards ignore the valuable information and insights that social media can provide?
One reason identified is that a third of leaders feared what might be uncovered by listening to social media. Surely we can’t be stuck in that state post Mid Staffs?
Far from being something to fear, social media intelligence gained through conversations on Twitter, networking sites like Facebook and even discussion platforms on NHS intranets can tell us what people really think of our services.
It can also serve as an early warning system.
The Health Research Institute cites the example of nurses within a social network discussing the defects of a specific drug. In this instance, the conversation was noted by the regulatory authority, not the manufacturer.
Now that many NHS organisations are collaborating with companies in the private and third sectors, social intelligence can be a useful adjunct to the due diligence process.
And it’s good to know what customers think of potential suppliers too.
The flip side of social media enabling individuals to publish opinions and knowledge online is the risk of leaking confidential information and the damage it can cause to reputation. The widespread use of smartphones means that trying to block social networking sites is unrealistic and it sends out a message that employees are not trusted.
So boards need to know that organisational risks have been identified and what policies and procedures are in place to mitigate the risks. Having clear guidelines and training on topics such as security awareness, confidentiality and online bullying are critical for all employees, including board members.
Transparency in dealing with social media is essential. This is a deep-rooted cultural issue and one which causes discomfort in many boardrooms, both in the NHS and outside. Being up front with how social media is used, such as during the recruitment process, should be clearly stated in organisational policies.
In addition to making use of social intelligence and ensuring proper governance is in place, the other aspect that boards need to know about is the opportunities social technologies present.
McKinsey estimated a potential 20 to 25per cent increase in productivity through using collaboration tools which save time through having information openly available rather than wasting time trying to find it in personal files and emails.
This method of working can also provide management with a clear understanding of the issues, where bottlenecks occur and what action management needs to take to enable teams to deliver.
The NHS Confederation’s discussion paper touches on a wide range of areas where social media can help, from helping people to manage their condition more effectively to the transformation of service delivery.
The paper also reminds us that people will be able to choose their provider, so boards should be confident that their online information will be useful and credible.
The challenge for boards is to use social media to help them make better decisions.
And for non-executive directors who have to be satisfied with the integrity of information, social media offers the opportunity to obtain intelligence independently and first hand.
Now, more than ever, not knowing is no excuse.
Diana Marsland is a non-executive director at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Follow her on Twitter @dianamarsland