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HR: the missing link in social business

It’s now 5 years since I wrote my first book on corporate social networking. At that time, examples of how social computing was impacting on organisations were few and far between, but even so I suggested that it would change the future of work as many of us knew it.

Today, I’m reassured by both data and case studies showing the positive effect it can have – if implemented properly. In particular, I’m noticing three things:

  1. A fundamental change in how technology supports organisational culture is coming, if not already here.
  2. Harnessing and channelling this change can have a positive effect on organisations, but there is no silver bullet.
  3. HR – in my view a critical but far too often neglected function when it comes to exploiting new innovations – has a key role to play in the process

So what’s changing?

Well, employee expectations for a start. If you haven’t read John Smythe’s excellent book ‘CEO: The Chief Engagement Officer’, I highly recommend it. It highlights the changing psychological contract between employer and employees, who – particularly in knowledge-based industries – feel more empowered to think independently, constantly challenging “the way we do things around here”.

It is these expectations that I think are forcing many organisations to start thinking more seriously about how they can help staff communicate, collaborate and connect with each other more quickly and more easily than before.

The underlying role of technology in the workplace is changing too. Staff are “bringing their own devices” to work, not to stay connected socially but because that’s what makes them more productive. Some companies have embraced this change, and saved millions of pounds on computer hardware in the process.

But it’s not just in IT hardware where we are seeing this “consumerisation of the enterprise”. It’s in software too, and this is often the biggest challenge for companies. The unpalatable fact is that enterprise software is, on the whole, pretty damn ugly. Your expensive ERP system is now competing with the slick, intuitive and responsive experiences provided by the likes of Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook. No prizes for guessing which one employees prefer. And as for the intranet… in too many organisations, it’s where documents go to die.

Yet we are still reluctant to let our employees use these tools, even though there is an increasing body of research from the likes of Harvard Business School and McKinsey suggesting that it actually improves productivity. Instead, we continue to block access to external social networks, even though we know they will just whip out their smartphones. A couple of years ago, few could persuade IT to let me get their work email on an iPhone. Now they simply cannot hold the floodgates back.

But enterprise social networking isn’t really about whether or not you let staff access Facebook. It’s about how we take the things that make those platforms so successful and harness them inside organisations to achieve business own goals.

Which leads me on to my second point: every company is different. Each has its own culture and its own objectives and it needs an approach which supports those. What might work for one organisation may not work for another. Even when the same tools are used, the way in which they are introduced, embedded and supported will invariably be different. Sometimes it will be by design, sometimes by accident and sometimes by stealth.

One of the earliest examples I came across of this was in the BBC in the mid 1990s. Euan Semple – the then head of knowledge management and now a leading social computing authority in his own right – noticed that editors and production staff were spending more time in the evenings helping people from other companies asking questions on electronic bulletin boards than they were helping the guy in the cutting room next door. He needed to give them an infrastructure or mechanism to talk to each online.

As a result, their internal community talk.gateway was born. Without any internal marketing, within a year or two, almost 90% of all staff had used it. More importantly, it had surfaced issues, questions and areas of conflict that would have previously become a growing source of frustration, yet never resolved. At first, this was a threat to senior management and corporate functions but, thanks to smart management at the time, it soon provided a rich seam of internal intelligence about the mood and state of the workforce, providing more insight than any employee survey had ever done. It was a great way to support the existing organisational culture using social technologies.

Conversely, take the example of Microsoft. Looking for a way to share best practices amongst a geographically dispersed, busy sales force, they created an internal mobile video and audio sharing platform – which relied on employees viewing, subscribing to and occasionally creating clips. Supported by providing mobile devices with the right software and a rewards programme to incentivise the top contributors, the Microsoft team in charge spent a lot of time and effort engaging their internal community to ensure success.

In other organisations, it’s about creating an entire corporate social networking ecosystem. I spent 10 years in a leading global PR consultancy, with around 2,000 employees in 70 offices in 40 countries. For 5 of those 10 years, I put in place social computing initiatives designed to improve our ability to work together across borders. Experience of external social networks showed me that people could happily cope with multiple platforms for different tasks, so we set about creating a network of blogs, wikis and micro-blogging tools designed to support some aspects of our culture and change others.

So what can we learn from examples like these?

First, it’s important to know what problem you’re trying to solve with corporate social networking. As with other strategic investments, it’s a case of “aim, then fire”.

Second, it’s better to start small and learn quickly than to fail at scale. Pilots in a single office or department can help develop a case for wider adoption.

Third, work bottom up and top down at the same time. Focus on encouraging adoption at the bottom and support from the top.

Finally, don’t forget the need to generate internal awareness, educate staff, and put appropriate support in place to maintain usage.

So what role does HR have to play in all this?

I’ve talked about technology a lot, but the fact is that every successful use of enterprise social networking I have seen has recognised that people are what makes it work. Putting even the best software in place will not work if the people aspect isn’t covered. It is my view that HR should own this part of the process.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, sustained and consistent internal and external use of social technologies requires good internal communication, change management and training, often all things that fall under the HR umbrella.

In short, HR represents the voice of the employee when it comes to corporate social networking, in the same way that marketing represents the voice of the customer when it comes to social media.

And that’s why I believe HR has a key role to play in understanding and applying social technologies to support and change organisational culture.