The Social spread

This article is not about whether social media is good for the workplace or not – that question is a waste of time. Like so many changes before it, social media is here to stay. Smart organisations harness its power to further their cause, while the slower ones are still trying to fight it. Also, like much of technology, it doing good or bad depends largely on what we do with it. To use it effectively, one must understand how it works and what users get from it.

Ultimately, social media is another tool that technology has placed in our hands. Whether we shoot for the stars or shoot ourselves in the foot depends entirely on how much we are willing to trust our employees and ourselves.

My first challenge here was to figure out what social media actually is – and I have come to the conclusion (after much reading of the non-“social-media”), that this predominantly refers to social networking, social news sites, social photo and video sharing. This then, includes Facebook, Digg, YouTube among many others. Having defined it enables us to see the scale of the issue – now that we know all that is included, we can see how daunting it is to think of controlling its spread.

For and against

One of the most common reasons why organisations block the usage of social media is that it lures users and holds them in trance for hours, affecting productivity on a daily basis. In fact, a recent article from DigitalMediaWire says that even in the U.S., 54 per cent of companies block access to social networking sites and only 10 per cent allow complete access.  The threats of social networking extend to risk of compromise of confidential business information, system overload and risks from malicious code infections. These are relatively easily managed through technical security controls and education of users.

The arguments in favour of allowing access to social media in the workplace are many and come from numerous sources. Employees love it because it allows them the freedom to stay connected and get some personal time at work. More importantly, although this is not voiced, allowing them to use media at work is a clear indication that the organisation trusts them to manage their work and time. In short, they are treated as responsible, self-managing adults, which is something most organisations speak about in their values.

Social media is viral in communication and this is both in magnitude of reach and speed of spread. Take for instance, the arrangements made by an information technology company in Bengaluru for the India-Pakistan Semi-final match in the ICC World Cup 2011. The management was reluctant to announce any arrangements, but employees saw the screen being put up and the counters set up with snacks and beverages. Within hours of commencing these arrangements, word was out and ex-employees and friends-of-friends started calling in to confirm the arrangements and in some cases, outsiders knew before employees sitting at their desks. That’s the power of Facebook and Twitter for you.

Work it

Organisations must learn to leverage social media to spread the message that they want and build a brand that is spoken about. During periods of change, for example, many senior leaders find it very useful to use a channel like a blog to provide a personal context and perspective. This can address concerns and doubts that cannot be addressed adequately through formal channels and the authenticity of a leader through a blog cements his leadership in a way no formal meeting could.

Reality is that even if social media is prohibited through official networks, many employees now have mobile phones that support this and organisations risk implementing toothless policies when what they seek to ban creeps in through another door. In effect, ignoring the advent of social media is pointless.

The trick is to ride the crest of the wave and here are some ways to do that:

  • Allow the use of social media and you will see that those who work will continue to do so. The real challenge is in giving employees meaningful work.
  • As an organisation, use social media to broadcast news, stay in touch with alumni, advertise for jobs etc.
  • Use social media to build and present the social face of the organisation – community initiatives, environmental activities etc.
  • Create very clear guidelines for employees on using social media – indicative usage reasons, non-interference with work deliverables, non-disturbance to colleagues and office environment
  • Train employees diligently and frequently on usage guidelines, communication style and more. In a global multi-national corporation which has an internal discussion board, one of the employees – a star in terms of performance and potential – posted a joke that offended some of the employees across the world and this was treated as a serious issue. Now, training is the only answer to such a situation, especially with this type of risk increasing, with more diverse workforces, even within India.
  • Prepare and announce disciplinary action against an employee who misuses social media – be sure to state what type of evidence is necessary to prove this claim, who can initiate the claim and what action can be taken. This is critical since for a significant number of gen-next employees the idea of social media having “standards of behaviour” is uncommon. It is often assumed that one can say anything in cyberspace.
  • Use social media to understand more about your employees and even candidates who seek to join your organisation. What you choose to do with information gathered over social media is a separate question, but it can definitely add dimension to your interviews.
  • Use social media to build brand awareness among customers, clients and even vendors. This generates trust and openness to a greater degree than formal communication channels.

Ultimately, social media is another tool that technology has placed in our hands. Whether we shoot for the stars or shoot ourselves in the foot depends entirely on how much we are willing to trust our employees and ourselves.