When it comes to our workplaces, the social media revolution has gotten off to a spluttering start. This post investigates the current use of social media in our organisations and what we can do to make sure social media adds value.
Just over two years ago at Social Media Camp London, I was involved in a heated discussion with a group of digital tech enthusiasts about whether or not twitter was a fad. We had just noticed that our motley band of ninety or so people had managed to get #smclondon to the top of twitter’s worldwide trending topics, and while most of us considered this to be pretty significant news, others took it as another sign that twitter was forever going to be a ‘small, small world’ populated by the same old people talking to, well, themselves.
This was the debate which in one form or another was going on all over the country – in offices, in newspapers, on chat shows and political broadcasts (“two twits make a t*&%”? Anyone?). All we seemed to be talking about was whether twitter was worth talking about, which makes it all the more heartening for those of us fighting twitter’s corner at #smclondon that now, just two years later, it’s almost impossible to imagine any collective activity that doesn’t utilise social media in some way. Whether you’re watching the Apprentice or planning to overthrow your government; twitter, facebook, blogs and forums are now standard issue. And while the likes of Malcolm Gladwell will continue to downplay the role that social media plays in our lives, no one would deny that it has no place at all.
Which is why, on face value, it seems strange that as soon as we walk through the doors of our office buildings and sit down at our desks we seem to be back in 1999. Email is king. Social media is for the ‘Gen Y’s. And in meeting rooms up and down the land corporate comms and IT teams are looking at one another somewhat quizzically and trying to determine how exactly this social media phenomenon applies to them.
Now, at this stage, you might be thinking that I’m exaggerating. Perhaps you’ve heard about IBM’s internal apps store or how DWP are crowd-sourcing money-saving organisational improvement ideas using Idea Street. Maybe your workplace has a dynamic community group on LinkedIn, or your CEO has well-read, oft-commented on blog. Perhaps you’ve even managed to get status updates built into the homepage of your intranet, with staff habitually sharing news and views on matters of critical organisational importance. If you are nodding at this point – congratulations – because I can assure you, you have achieved something magnificent. Most organisations haven’t gotten nearly that far.
Show me the money
In Towers Watson’s Communication ROI Study for 2009/10, which surveys employees from organisations of all shapes and sizes, 40% of participants stated they had increased their use of social media for employee communication. However, only 29% of all participants thought the use of social media for employee communication had been cost-effective. It’s not that we’re not exploring it. We’re just not sure if it’s worth it.
Speak to any internal comms professional and they’ll back up this conclusion. At last month’s Institute of Internal Communications conference I asked the audience of public and private sector professionals to raise their hand if they felt the case for social media in their organisations was won, lost or if ‘the jury was out’. Unsurprisingly, roughly 95% of the audience fell into the final category.
We have a CEO blog, but no one is commenting. Or they comment, but they aren’t saying anything useful. Or even worse, it’s becoming just a little bit offensive. What do we do with that?
We’ve launched an internal social network, but no one is using it. We expected it just to, well, you know, just ‘take off’. Like, everyone would just jump on it. That it would ‘go viral’. Like twitter and facebook did. But it, well, hasn’t. Or some people are using it, but it seems to be the same old people (who clearly can’t have anything better to do with their time).
We let our staff ‘blog’ now. It’s the future. Everyone’s going to do it. Ok, two people do it. Only one of them regularly. And it’s about the intricacies of expense payments which, unsurprisingly, achieved just 12 visits last week. From one unique visitor. Guess who that was.
While these comments are caricatures, they represent some of our worst fears about the questionable value that social media can bring to our organisations. The sad part is, in too many organisations, these fears are becoming a reality, souring the reputation of social tools and bolstering the neigh-seers. Risk-aversion, limited resources and skills gaps are all holding organisations back. Which is a shame, as if we can be sure of anything, we can be sure that the successful organisations of the future will be the ones which integrate their technology so seamlessly into the way we do business that we no longer even notice that we’re using ‘social media’.
So where do we go from here?
Let’s face it, it is still early days. But what’s clear we need some basic principles to help get us back on track, and having spent the past couple of years talking endlessly on this subject, going to conferences, researching case studies and running digital internal engagement projects, it would seem that there are three tenets that consistently work in making sure that social media adds value in our workplaces as opposed to becoming a laughing stock.
1. Go back to (strategic) basics
‘Doing some social media’ because everyone else is just is not a good enough reason. We need to think – really think – about what our organisational objectives are and then see if social media applications might play a role in achieving them. Need to reduce costs and improve processes? Ideas crowd-sourcing might help provide part of the solution. Want to break down team silos and get people joining up? Then blogs or forums might help add some dynamism to your knowledge-sharing activities. Need to increase the visibility of the senior leadership team? Then webinars, podcasts and yes, even blogs might play a role in creating a step-change. But whatever we’re doing, it has to start with an over-arching objective focused on the impact we want to have, not the tools we’ll use to do it.
Importantly, I say social media might ‘play a role’. Anyone trying to make an impact in an organisation knows that the product solution is only one small part of achieving a lasting change, and that what happens face to face is always going to be as important, if not more important than what happens online. Social media is not and will never be the silver bullet for reaching our organisational goals. What it does give us however is some new, exciting tools in our armoury that, when used effectively, can propel us in the right direction. Which is great. But it means we can’t forget about all the other things that make a good strategy – clear objectives, stakeholder buy-in, senior engagement, and yes, an internal engagement strategy, which leads us onto…
2. It’s the people, stupid.
Social tools can do some pretty cool things. DWP’s Idea Street is a case in point; using the spigit platform it uses a virtual currency to create a stock market for good ideas. If your idea succeeds – meaning it is signed off and implemented – all the staff involved get a return. If it doesn’t, the value of the idea crashes and everyone involved loses (virtual) money.
It’s an innovative concept. It’s a perfect example of the kind of engaging approaches that can be achieved with this kind of digital solution. But it’s also proof that without staff participation, nothing is achieved. If people aren’t logging in; creating, sharing, developing and implementing ideas and driving them through the ideas laboratory, then having a sexy online platform is basically worthless. It’s an empty forum registering zero visits.
This might sound really obvious, but just think about how many wikis, blogs and forums are set up with a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy. As if somehow, sensing the existence of the social network on some subconscious level, staff will immediately flock to it in droves. In reality, the graveyard of empty forums out there tells us it just doesn’t work like that. Social media’s success rests on attracting people to use it, which means there are a few things we need to do.
Firstly, we need to be clear about ‘what’s in it for me’ – why should your employees spend time using your social media solution? What does it give them that they can’t get more easily elsewhere? What will happen on there which will make their work lives more productive/easy/interesting/fun? If the answer is nothing – then social media will fail.
Secondly, we need an internal comms plan. People can’t use your new platform if they don’t know it exists or what it’s for. In the ‘outside world’ of twitter, facebook and now G+, we’d usually just say ‘leave it to people to find out by word of mouth’ – this works because the audience is potentially huge and there are many people who thrive on sharing the news and being the early adopters. This doesn’t, however, usually work in an organisation, firstly because word of mouth usually just results in reaffirming silos (people tend to only tell other people in their team), and secondly, because those that don’t hear about it until later down the line can quite rightly feel a bit left out and annoyed that it wasn’t launched ‘properly’.
We need to tell people (and keep telling people) it exists. We need to tell them what it’s for. And we need to be clear with people about how they use it – some simple, plain English social media guidance can work wonders.
So we have a clear objective and strategy, and we have people using the platform, which leave just one thing left to do…
3. Integrate, Integrate, Integrate.
Social media might be the new kid on the block, but that doesn’t mean that it should be a stand alone activity. In fact, social media works at its best when used in co-ordination with other communications, whether it’s by extending the life of internal events by providing a place for staff to comment and feedback on what they’ve seen or heard, adding dynamism to e-newsletters with a monthly discussion topic or call for ideas, or bringing your very own intranet into the 21st century by integrating the people directory with some social networking functionality.
And yet, time and again, organisations are setting up stand alone social platforms without any integration with broader internal activities. The weekly newsletter doesn’t mention it. The frontpage of the intranet doesn’t mention it. Senior leaders don’t mention it. Forums and networks remain these underground, slightly subversive online places which bear little relation to organisational activities and are only visited by the few in the know.
So, if we want your social media solution to live and breathe in the day to day life of our businesses, it’s worth spending some time planning how we will integrate it with existing channels and activities. It could be as simple as adding a discussion forum topic to your monthly newsletter, or a yammer hashtag to a staff event. These small things will help raise awareness, demonstrate relevance, and start to embed social media activities into business as usual.
Organisations don’t have to use social media – it won’t always be needed and it won’t always be a valuable use of time and money. But whatever the size, shape and purpose of your organisation, we are quickly reaching the point where just avoiding social media because ‘we don’t know how’ or ‘we think it’s too risky’ is no longer a viable option. Applied strategically, planned with the audience in mind and integrated effectively with other activities, social media has the potential to add real value, and while it may not always revoluationise our organisations, it will be increasingly be an inevitable part of their evolution. For those workplaces still in 1999, it’s time they got out of this timewarp and embraced that fact.