How do you make better decisions for your business? With the profusion of information made possible by social media technology, it's often hard for the leaders of middle market companies to know where to start. Professor Bhupesh Shah is a social media expert who leads Seneca College's innovative Social Media Graduate Certificate Program. He says that social media is an invaluable tool for business leaders because it "provides data that allows an organization to make fact-based business decisions. The fast flow of information gained from social media minimizes the risk of anchoring and clinging to the status quo. Businesses can efficiently broaden their base of data collection to get a better representation of 'reality.'"

He says, however, that social media technology shouldn't be your only guide. Think first about "the business objectives and core competencies of the organization. The social media feedback can provide information that can...shape or support the decision." For companies that are interested in leveraging social media and technology to enhance their decision making, here are Professor Shah's top tips. 

You can use social media and social technology to enhance your organization's decision making.

Get the right tools. A very basic form of "social listening" is a free Google Alert, which allows you to be notified anytime your company (or any other search term you enter) is mentioned online. But Shah says many companies can also benefit from social listening and engagement tools such as radian6 (Salesforce), Sysomos, viralheat, or HootSuite. "These tools help to gather, organize, and filter real-time data on what consumers are saying about the competition, the business, the brand, and the product in order to provide actionable insights," he says.

Don't try to prohibit employees from using social media technology. "Before the Internet, where was the best place to hang out in order to stay in the loop?" asks Shah. "The water cooler! We could not control the conversation back then, so why are we trying to do so now?" The reality, he says, "is that our employees are probably using social media already." Locking them out at work conveys a mistrust that can be damaging to morale: "If we don't trust our employees on social media, we should look at our hiring practices," he says. With clear guidelines, even employees in regulated industries like financial services or pharmaceuticals can use social media successfully. And the benefits can be substantial. "Internally," says Shah, "it can become an engagement tool, tear down silos, foster collaboration, and increase transparency. Externally, there are great benefits to having our employees on social media," including having more "ambassadors" spread the word about the brand.

Look at internal, as well as external, social networks. Monitoring what's said about your company on Facebook or Twitter is important. If there's a problem or complaint of any sort, you'll hear about it quickly. But it's also useful to facilitate and monitor internal social networks, such as Chatter or Yammer. "Internal networks give you...a behind the scenes look at the organization," says Shah. "Those that are closest to the customer usually have the best and most current information, but it is not easily shared. Internal social networks like Chatter, for example, allow everyone in the organization to see what everyone else is working on. They can share issues and opportunities - the organization has better information to make better decisions."

Be proactive, not just reactive. Finally, your company can leverage social media technology in two distinct ways. First, you should think about ongoing brand monitoring, which allows you to track trends and make better long-range planning decisions. The second mandate is online reputation management. If your company is being discussed in a critical fashion, it's important to learn about it quickly so you can take action to defuse any rumors or negative press. Says Shah, "Knowing what's happening makes it easier to decide what to do."

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor and a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter. Circle her on Google+.