Social Media in the Workplace

Many companies have been introducing social media technologies into the workplace. However most have still to discover how to use them to create true competitive advantage and impact the bottom line. So what are the challenges that need to be addressed?

There’s no shortage of social media tools available to businesses, from blogs, content aggregators, wikis and personal homepages, to virtual spaces and social networks. But although these could potentially  transform the way they work, the reality is trailing behind the hope. Adoption has been markedly slower than in the public domain, with most companies dipping their toes in here and there.

One thing’s for certain: trying to replicate consumer networking sites and social tools behind the firewall won’t work. What’s needed is an holistic approach, identifying the business, cultural, and technical factors to consider. So what are the challenges, and how can they be overcome?

Busy staff need encouragement and a rationale for changing the way they work. They are resistant to learning new behaviours if they can’t see a clear benefit. So an essential first step is to find out what stops people getting their jobs done and what are the key business drivers for change. Once the problems are well understood, the search for the solution can begin.

One problem is that most people already feel overloaded with information and can spend hours sifting through irrelevant content. This makes them less productive: if they are prone to make bad or ill-timed decisions they may be unable to maintain desired standards of quality. A danger of social computing is that it can worsen this situation. Anyone who uses Twitter knows that it is impossible to keep up with all information streams.

With the continued spread of social media tools in the workplace, it’s critical that staff are trained to use them well. Otherwise they will simply shift the overload from one channel – typically email – to others.  They need to be shown how they can manage their activity streams. They need to make smart choices about who or what to follow and how to stay abreast of items that flow through their dashboard. This new skill should be complemented by intelligent filters built into the social computing platform, based on subjects and keywords that can assess an item’s potential relevance – precisely the types of filters Google uses when it dishes up personalised search results.

Quick wins may involve the use of blogs and wikis. Group blogs can be much more effective than email for informally sharing knowledge, a substitute for the generic ‘does anyone know?’ email. Wikis can be used to create informal FAQ resources on different areas and topics. They can also provide more structured know-how resources, for example a section-by-section guide to a code or process. Even using a wiki page for something simple like the agenda for an online meeting can cut down on email traffic and save time.

Clearly, another major concern is around privacy and security of information.  Social technology tools can track what staff are doing online and with whom, generating new information based on patterns of behaviour. This raises concerns for some about their privacy and they may want to opt out. Meanwhile enterprises still have their secrets, and want to be sure that sensitive information is seen only by those who need it.

In some cases, social tools end up creating new information silos that don’t link in a meaningful way to core CRM or ERP systems. What’s needed here are social systems that are an integral part of all the applications people use daily to get their work done.  Amongst other things, the systems should have access to existing internal directories, so that staff don’t have to keep their profile page up-to-date or leave their personal dashboard to search the database for relevant information.

Companies looking to offer a one-stop service to their employees will let them pull in their personal streams such as Facebook, Twitter and Flickr into their personal dashboard. Given the blurring of work and personal boundaries for many professionals, and their desire to build relationships with those whom they do business, this should at the very least be a point for consideration.

Finally, the tools must be embedded into the flow of everyday work. It’s important to remember that social computing is about people, not technology. Don’t think that social technologies will be as popular on the inside of your company as they are in the public domain. The tools must underpin a genuine need in the workplace and be embedded into people’s everyday work processes.

If the use of social media tools means asking staff to step out of their daily flow of work, and codify and share something about what they do, then they will be hard to engage. But if it can help them do their job better then they can really work.

(From Social Business, Q4, 2011)

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