[IMGCAP(1)]Social accounting involves using new collaboration tools inspired by social networks to connect and engage in a business context.

In my last article on social media and accounting, (see Why Do I Need a Facebook for Finance?), I discussed how “social” is spreading to the enterprise and modernizing how we do business. With tools like salesforce.com’s Chatter that are embedded directly into cloud-based accounting and customer relationships management applications, all relevant documents and conversation streams are attached to accounts and transaction records, creating an instant audit trail of discussions pertaining to a business situation or event.

Social media apps create more visibility. They’re more effective than email or conference calls at connecting teams and departments. And they increase efficiencies both internally and externally with customers. But are you ready for them?

While the power of cloud-based social apps is catching on, getting started can initially pose technical and change management hurdles for some finance departments. To help you make the transition to social accounting, consider the following tips.

1. Start with the cloud.
Having access from anywhere and any device is critical. When evaluating social accounting applications, choose cloud systems that are perpetually available 24/7 via a browser or a mobile application. Not only does the cloud offer affordable, secure, anywhere access, it also removes the burden from your IT department. Chances are, IT has better things to do than create their own proprietary social application or manage on-premise software. In addition, by foregoing VPNs and firewalls for cloud systems with built-in security, employees are more likely to make it a part of their working lifestyle. Because it’s accessible, familiar—and dare we say, fun! — they’ll be able to use the system in the off-hours and during downtime, thereby increasing productivity.

2. Integrate it. Don’t add it.
Don’t add social apps as you would another standalone tool, like email or IM that sit outside your business systems. Not only will this add another user login, but worse, social activity will be separated from business transactions, accounts, customers and vendor data. You’ll end up creating more communication barriers and fragmented information because the conversations will not be embedded in the system—a problem with email and conference calls today. Social media interactions are most valuable when they are in the context of a specific business situation –say, a past-due customer or a billing issue—so look for social tools that are actually a part of your accounting and CRM systems.

3. Use it across the company.
The value of social media apps climbs exponentially as more people adopt it in your business. Like Metcalfe’s law, which describes how the power of a computer network increases as more nodes are added, social media apps become more valuable to an organization when more people are communicating and engaged. Social media apps have a knack for creating corporate-wide visibility for business situations and for initiating teamwork, particularly across traditional department silos. For example, the finance team can follow new sales opportunities on Chatter and proactively suggest ways to structure deals to help close business. Not only does the finance team have a chance to add value to the sales team, but the deal will meet your accounting standards when it is signed.

4. Let your data do the talking…or at least some of it.
Have you ever wished your accounting system could think and talk? Now it can. With cloud-based social apps, your system and data can begin a conversation. A good use case is setting up automatic Chatter streams. Too many past due accounts? Set up a Chatter alert for accounts “over 60 days due,” which notifies all stakeholders about the situation. This puts it on the radar of anyone working with the account and begins a conversation about how to rectify the situation. Expense approval delayed? Have the system create a Chatter stream to make managers aware of bottlenecks and eliminate delays from the period close cycle.

For those concerned about disseminating too much information, take advantage of creating special groups as a way to filter and maintain appropriate levels of privacy and controlled sharing. It is up to you to determine how much information you share.

5. Inspire your team.

Most people are already accustomed to communicating with social networks. According to a recent Nielsen report, Americans spend more time on Facebook than on any other U.S. Web site. So, talk to them in their language! By bringing comparable social platforms like Chatter to the workplace, you’ll create a shared platform for business collaboration. Here are a few ideas:

• Start the conversation. As the champion for the new solution, be sure that you participate and show your team you’re behind it.

• Stay active by presenting a problem, asking a question or posting an interesting link to internal reports.

• Don’t leave anyone hanging. Make sure every question posted gets answered in a timely manner, and is directly related to the topic at hand.

• Suggest that team members create groups or topics, e.g. #accounts60daysoverdue, to follow what could quickly become a cash issue.

• Praise valuable posts and encourage wallflowers.

6. Embrace remote work.
Since cloud-based and socially enabled accounting apps make remote work and collaboration possible, employees no longer have to be chained to their desks, especially during peak times like period closes. Enjoy the freedom of being mobile and accomplishing work tasks remotely. Not only is this a significant benefit for internal accounting employees who may be out with a sick child or trying to avoid a long commute, it’s also a great way to keep in touch when traveling to remote offices or client sites.

7. Train the staff.
Most social media apps are pretty intuitive, but you’ll find that some employees will embrace them faster than others. A simple orientation or training session is a critical, yet often unrealized, component of successful enterprise adoption of social apps. Old habits die hard, and it’s likely you’ll need to change ingrained behavior by educating staff, setting realistic expectations and allowing ample time for learning, practicing and adopting into daily activities. Encourage them to replace emails and conference calls with Chatter posts, particularly broadcast emails.

On the flip side, establish parameters of enterprise social apps and share guidelines for what’s appropriate (and not) for internal business conversations. This will be especially important for the Facebook generation, who are accustomed to social networks outside the workplace. Make the transition to enterprise social accounting smooth by communicating how it will make day-to-day responsibilities easier with a more complete source of data and conversations, as well as searchable topics and groups to cut down on email. Finally, drill down into the details of the application, such as how to create hashtag subject groups around common interests (#PeriodClose, #2012audit, #CashFlowGroup), which will make it easier to report and look up Chatter streams.

8. Let your culture and personalities shine through.
The main goal of a social enterprise is to improve business efficiency. But, like the cloud itself, stay flexible! Let the Facebook generation take the lead: watch how they’re using it, and encourage successful uses across the entire department. Also, let your culture and company vibe come through, whether you’re posting alerts of team success, new hire announcements or photos of team gatherings and events. Relationships are not built on business activities alone; post the fun stuff too!

Finance is the lifeblood of a company, and today’s accounting teams need the tools to be more strategic, efficient and valuable to the business as a whole. Soon social enterprise apps will be as pervasive as email is today, and finance departments that embrace social media early and make it an acceptable, accessible part of business will continue to stay a step ahead of their competition.

Tom Brennan is vice president of product marketing at FinancialForce.com.