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Join the Internal Enterprise Conversation, Already in Progress

Posted by Mark Bennett on October 19, 2009


2866399803_f10bdde231_mConversations among employees (vs. broadcasts from corporate) have always taken place in organizations – they just haven’t always been easily seen by the leaders. These conversations continue to take place inside, outside and across organization boundaries and recently, social technologies have substantially amplified their volume. These amplified conversations then get the attention of management, and not always in a constructive way.

The enterprise’s interests are better served by participating in these conversations, particularly through the effective use of social technologies, rather than by ignoring, rejecting, or banning their use. The result is not only higher employee productivity, more effective innovation, and greater employee engagement. It also results in the organization making more informed business decisions by having a better understanding of what makes the company “tick” and by being more aware of key events and conditions. Finally, the organization can have at least some input into the conversation as well, but only if it participates.

What are the conversations about?

Steve Boese posted a great summary of the findings in an IBM research paper on how employees were using social networks and why. One of the paper’s most eye-opening findings, and one that organizations should note, is that employees appear to use social network within the enterprise more for reaching out to employees they don’t already know and for building stronger bonds with them and their other “weak ties.” This is interesting to know as it is in contrast to what most detractors cite as why social networks within the enterprise would be a productivity drain. Those detractors often label it “Facebook for the Enterprise” and point out that a primary use of Facebook is just to keep current on what close friends are doing and gossip on things that have nothing to do with work, ergo it is a waste of time in the workplace. The research paper shows the error in thinking that is the primary use.

Beyond reaching out to create and build stronger ties, what else is happening? As mentioned in this earlier post on last month’s HR Technology® Conference, Nokia’s Matthew Hanwell related how his company gradually adopted internal use of social technologies. Steve also has a terrific summary of the points from that presentation. It turns out that employees sometimes also used the social technologies for general discussions about work. For instance, they might discuss overall state of the market, business profitability, and so on. They might discuss various benefit programs. In general, topics often on employees’ minds regarding things that impact their employment.

The upshot is that employees use social technologies to discuss the things they would still talk about even if the technologies didn’t exist or were banned. It’s the same thing they have always talked about and for good reason; it’s their career and their livelihood. For instance, the IBM paper shows that why employees have these conversations over internal social networks is reflected in the way they use them. Both developing one’s career and campaigning for a project are particularly assisted by reaching out and strengthening weak ties. That notion was covered in this previous post about the advantages of being more “central” in a given network through the creation and maintenance of diverse networks. You get more benefit from diversity of connections than simply pure quantity. (More to the point of this post, it’s about the diverse conversations and not just the connections themselves – you have to actually use the connections.)

How can the enterprise join the conversations?

Hanwell’s presentation showed that at first, fear drove much of the reluctance to permit social technologies in the enterprise in the first place. What would employees say? Could moderators keep up? In other words, worst-case thinking that in turn triggered further rationalizing rejection – such as governance costs – of the technologies. However, once key stakeholders understood that the conversations were happening anyway (including using external social technologies like Facebook) and that there was much to be gained by observing and participating in them, they gave the green light.

Most obstacles to the enterprise joining the conversation are self-inflicted. During the HR Happy Hour at the HR Technology conference, we talked about how organizations need help in overcoming the fear that puts up obstacles to successful adoption and use of social technologies. Jason Seiden pointed out the “risk-aversion” obstacle – in particular how it surfaces in staff departments like HR – which in many cases see only downside in backing an initiative like this. This is very much driven by how HR is viewed by the organization. As long as a given HR department is exclusively chartered with (and therefore measured on) compliance and governance oversight, and not with maximizing the strategic impact of talent, putting social technologies under its control will likely result in not much adoption, use, or benefit.

How can that perception be dealt with? We’ll hit that in another HR Technology – themed post soon.

Photo by cliff1066™

14 Responses to “Join the Internal Enterprise Conversation, Already in Progress”

  1. Amy Wilson said

    Good stuff Mark. It is eye-opening to realize that HR’s fear of being “big brother” through social media is actually symptomatic of other problems.

  2. Mark – excellent article and I very much appreciate the mention. I think you made a great point about that how organizations view the mission or true value of HR is a determining factor on how they might view new social technologies in the enterprise. If HR is the compliance police, then more than likely they will at best ignore these tools altogether, or at worst actively look to snuff out the opportunity to experiment with them. Great post.

  3. One of the interesting things I have found while working with HR to adopt talent networking technologies is that, surprisingly, the majority of HR professionals are all for it. The pushback that they are getting is not from themselves but from their senior management teams.

    Sadly, execs at many companies still have the sense that internal social media tools would be more of a distraction than a benefit. They are concerned that water cooler talk that is made visible to all would (at worst) turn into a groundswell of griping that spreads across employees or (at best)waste hours per day of employees’ time. Many corporate leaders speak to seeing the value but don’t think it would work well in their particular environments.

    You might be surprised to know that it is the HR and the Learning and Development Managers who are the ones leading the charge and persuading their senior management to pilot talent networking technology. It is the HR and L&D professionals that are putting together the business cases to show the ROI and various ways that corporate social networking can add real, bottom-line value to the organization.

    I would argue that if we stop tearing down HR and work to increase HR’s influence with Senior Management then we would see a much greater adoption of innovation. As is, it’s difficult when HR wants to implement some of these strategic initiatives but is not given the respect, ie. the money, to do so.

    If you look at an HR budget it’s incredibly difficult for HR to get $ to do more than the basic HR functions. So to Mark’s point that placing social technology under HR’s control will result in lack of adoption – that may be so but it has less to do with HR not “getting” the concepts than with HR not getting the power and $.

    Unfortunately the alternatives of placing internal social technologies under marketing or (heaven forbid) IT creates even worse problems. They may have the money and clout to start a program but they lack the experience and know-how with the employee relations, performance and risk areas that come along with using this technology.

    • Excellent arguments, Beth! And I very much agree. It isn’t placing social technology under HR’s control per se that risks unsuccessful adoption, it’s placing it under HR’s control when senior management only sees HR as “workplace police” i.e. solely as policy enforcers, compliance checkers, etc. rather than as also being responsible for workforce strategy. And you are right, the alternative locations don’t appear to be a very good fit, especially when considering what the whole purpose is for having internal deployment of social technology.

      So whether intentional or not, placing something into any department and either ensuring or neglectfully leaving the measures for that department such that there is no incentive to institute change and start using it, effectively dooms it. What HR is measured by is in some cases purposeful and in others more “cultural inertia” if you will. Changing the perception of HR’s overall mission and whether it has the skills to achieve it seems to be a prerequisite if you want successful adoption of social technology under HR’s watch.

    • Beth, I’ve put up what I think is a good first step for increasing HR’s influence with senior management here. In it, I’ve included a mention of four factors I found that describe the root of the problem, which are shared by both HR and senior management. I’d like to know your thoughts!

  4. Great Post Mark!

  5. Good dialogue, Mark et al. It seems like a lot of people want to put this multi-dimensional issue of social media in the workplace into a nice neat bucket, package it up, put a bow on it, and then file it away. It also looks like many organizations are looking to HR to be in charge of that whole process. I wonder why we have to do anything about it at all. Is it really any different than what people do over lunch or while on a smoke break or after work at happy hours? Why are we so worried about it? Let ’em talk, let ’em gossip, let them stir the pot if they want to…as you say, they’re going to find a way to do it anyway. The beauty to Steve Boese’s finding that counter-productivity is often NOT at play: there’s a pretty good chance something quite positive will come from the social interaction…even if it is during business hours. I say stop trying to over-engineer this thing: give them unrestricted access and let this powerful medium evolve. To me, the benefit far outweighs the cost – and if it doesn’t yet, it will.

  6. […] might really come from the interaction…(gasp) say it isn’t so.  Mark Bennett with TalentedApps had a great post about this […]

  7. […] Join the Internal Enterprise Conversation, Already in Progress […]

  8. […] Don’t run out of steam yet…coffee is also the beverage du jour for Mark, Amy and Meg over at TalentedApps.  They’ll have plenty brewing for you when you read Join the Internal Enterprise Conversation, Already in Progress. […]

  9. […] Don’t run out of steam yet…coffee is also the beverage du jour for Mark, Amy and Meg over at TalentedApps.  They’ll have plenty brewing for you when you read Join the Internal Enterprise Conversation, Already in Progress. […]

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