A new IBM study of more than 1 700 CEOs from 64 countries and 18 industries worldwide reveals that CEOs are changing the nature of work by adding a powerful dose of openness, transparency and employee empowerment to the command-and-control ethos that has characterised the modern corporation for more than a century.

The advantages of the fast-moving trend are clear. According to the IBM CEO study, companies that outperform their peers are 30% more likely to identify openness – often characterised by a greater use of social media as a key enabler of collaboration and innovation – as a key influence on their organisation.  Outperformers are embracing new models of working that tap into the collective intelligence of an organisation and its networks to devise new ideas and solutions for increased profitability and growth.

To forge closer connections with customers, partners and a new generation of employees in the future, CEOs will shift their focus from using e-mail and the phone as primary communication vehicles to using social networks as a new path for direct engagement. Today, only 16% of CEOs are using social business platforms to connect with customers, but that number is poised to spike to 57% within the next three to five years. While social media is the least utilised of all customer interaction methods today, it stands to become the number two organisational engagement method within the next five years, a close second to face-to-face interactions.

Coming after decades of top-down control, the shift has substantial ramifications – not just for the CEOs themselves – but for their organisations, managers, and employees, as well as for universities and business schools, and information technology suppliers. IBM’s research finds that technology is viewed as a powerful tool to recast organisational structures. More than half of CEOs (53%) are planning to use technology to facilitate greater partnering and collaboration with outside organisations, while 52% are shifting their attention to promoting great internal collaboration.

“One of the most compelling findings is how in tune CEOs are about the implications and impact of social media,” says Bridget van Kralingen, senior vice-president of IBM Global Business Services. “Rather than repeating the familiar lament about de-personalising human relationships, this view leans heavily in favour of deepening them, and using dynamic social networks to harness collective intelligence to unlock new models of collaboration.”

Greater openness is not without risks. Openness increases vulnerability. The Internet – especially through social networks – can provide a worldwide stage to any employee interaction, positive or negative. For organisations to operate effectively in this environment, employees must internalise and embody the organisations values and mission.  Thus, organisations must equip employees with a set of guiding principles that they can use to empower everyday decision-making. Championing collaborative innovation is not something CEOs are delegating to their HR leaders.  According to the study findings, the business executives are interested in leading by example.

By the numbers CEOs regard interpersonal skills of collaboration (75%), communication (67%), creativity (61%) and flexibility (61%) as key drivers of employee success to operate in a more complex, interconnected environment.

To build its next-generation workforce, organisations have to actively recruit and hire employees who excel at working in open, team-based environments.  At the same time, leaders must build and support practices to help employees thrive, such as encouraging the development of unconventional teams, promoting experiential learning techniques and empowering the use of high-value employee networks.

The IBM study also found that a majority (71%) of global CEOs regard technology as the number one factor to impact an organisation’s future over the next three years – considered to be a bigger change agent than shifting economic and market conditions.

Across all aspects of their organisation – from financials to competitors to operations – CEOs are most focused on gaining deeper insights about their customers. Seven out of every 10 CEOs are making significant investments in their organisations’ ability to draw meaningful customer insights from available data.

Given the data explosion most organisations are facing, CEOs recognise the need for more sophisticated business analytics to mine the data being tracked online, on mobile phones and social media sites. The traditional approach to understanding customers better has been to consolidate and analyse transactions and activities from across the entire organisation. However, to remain relevant, CEOs must piece together a more holistic view of the customer based on how he or she engages the rest of the world, not just their organisation.

The ability to drive value from data is  strongly correlated with performance.  Outperforming organisations are twice as good as underperformers at accessing and drawing insights from data.  Outperformers are also 84 percent better at translating those insights into real action.