Social Media is still in its infancy. Not to say the adoption rates are low – we’re already well on our way to critical mass now – but it’s only just developing in defining its specific roles to bring real value to myriad demographics, groups & industries. This is nothing new.

When the Internet cow left the barn in the mid-90s, its applications were basic, unrefined and simplistic. Investments were made based on potential rather than actual value. Even today, the rules are still being rewritten as to how the Web in general influences and serves behaviors and markets. And Social Media is in the same spot the Web was back then: just now leaving a period of great discovery, and entering an era of vast underutilization and redefinition.

This is particularly true for business. And especially for industries in manufacturing with complex design and supply chains.

Compliance – and for that matter, governance, too – will become the defining topics for how and why industrial and technology companies utilize Social Media over the coming decade. And it may already be effecting the results you’re seeing now, without you even knowing it.

Back in the mid 90s, Denis Leary appeared in a commercial for Domino that brought to the masses a rare message that the Web could actually be used for BUSINESS. It was a short blast, straight from the Cluetrain Manifesto directly into our living rooms:

We can quibble about the fact that Lotus Domino ain’t what it was – or what it was supposed to be. We can laugh at the hair. But what’s repeating itself is Social Media is merely in its earliest adoption stages today, and that businesses will adopt Social Media like they did the Internet – and develop them as tools, used sensibly and on their own terms.

Compliance is the train coming down the tracks, straight at industrial and B2B marketing professionals. It is the elephant in the living room that no one wants to acknowledge. We seem more comfortable to bask in the warm glow of foursquare and liking facebook pages for now.¬† But it’s coming, and in many cases it’s already influencing your prospects and customers in ways you’re likely unaware of.

There are two primary characteristics of Social Media and all business communications serving corporations in tightly regulated industries:

  • First, the information that can be broadcast by employees and groups within these organizations can cause unintended (or even intentional) harm to relationships and violate legacy mandates
  • Second, the retention of communications – including via Social Media – are evolving in many industries to provide ‘paper trails’ for technical, legal and conformance issues that arise from future litigation, investigations or audits

Part of the problem is the word itself – ‘compliance’ conjures thoughts of reams of specifications, instructions, step-by-step directives that guide ourselves and our clients through their projects. And it brings to mind a governmental or industrial body that regulates and audits regularly to assure strict obedience.

But my use of ‘compliance’ here is a bit broader – it can also take the forms of internal corporate directives, legal requirements to protect a corporation & provide indemnity, protections of intellectual property, and controls to maintain design & production processes around projects with foreign customers.

This shift to control, compliance and limited access has already begun. In a recent survey of 1,400 CIOs in a broad range of industries conducted by Robert Half Technology this year, 31% of organizations say they prohibit access to Social Media in their corporations, down from 54% two years ago (2009). But in a recent survey of manufacturers conducted by Gardner Publications to measure their current Social Media preferences, the smaller the company the less likely they control or block Social Media. More importantly, Gardner’s research shows that the larger the company the much greater the chances they block or limit access (60.8%).

And consider these developing issues in many industries and business circumstances that are coming to a B2B or industrial Social Media landscape near you:

  • The Financial Industries – Since the Great Recession of 2008, the Financial industries are undergoing intense scrutiny and regulation reform. As a matter of fact, no industry has seen the upheaval of information management, control and compliance more than Financial. Many of these rewritten regs focus specifically on the communications and retention of information generated by those companies. Scores of laws have been written or refined constantly that tightly control how information is stored and retrieved. The archiving of Social Media messaging in the Financial industries will creep into other industries too, to reduce legal risks and provide governance of processes, production and contractual obligations among partners.
  • Medical & Pharmaceutical – Like the Financial industries, emerging regulatory compliance stipulations to protect medical records’ privacy and integrity will become more intense, not less. And in the Pharmaceutical industries, an already extraordinarily regulated environment will become even more intensely self-regulated to protect product development and to prevent corporate espionage. In both of these instances, avoiding legal and human resource debacles will become more and more commonplace, with intense scrutiny on open communications via Social Media channels.
  • Military & Governmental – Already strictly governed (pun intended), Social Media access and utilization for companies that are nodes in military & defense supply chains are managed intensely and will see greater controls around Social Media in the coming years. Add the complexity of performing work for foreign governments and military, and the demands for what a supplier can and can’t do with Social Media will only become more intense – if for no other reason than to protect the integrity of the clients’ databases, servers and product information. Anyone that currently works with the French military as a contractor, for example, can tell you about the level of requirements necessary to comply with current regulations, even without the Social Media dynamic.
  • Human Resources¬†– And what about your own company? What of disgruntled employees, or even someone innocently sharing a seemingly innocuous bit of information that provides competitive advantage or a suggestion of noncompliance within an existing contract or project? These things happen with great regularity – and it usually only takes one instance to bring compliance into your presently ‘open’ environment.

Many of the concerns that will drive adoption of greater limitations, controls and compliance in Social Media also revolve around the behavioral data that today’s open platforms gather from users. The odds that compromising information about projects, products, research, intentions and corporate intelligence are often too great to risk on open networks. Your customers – and their customers – are discovering this.

Simply put, in many highly regulated industries and environments, the cloud ain’t cuttin’ it.

The fact is, this is all good. Closed Social Media networks that connect those with the approved clearances to view and share sensitive data will serve businesses with critical missions better. Instead of Social Media, think ‘Procial’ Media – social tools with characteristics designed for professional purposes.

Data & systems  integrity. Business relationship protections. Intellectual property security. These are all strong motivations for corporations and industries across the spectrum of business.

What your customers and prospects are thinking today will change soon. They will create controls that limit their interactions via many emerging communications channels, including Social Media. Will you be ready for these transformations to their Social Media strategies?