Companies That Don’t Embrace Social Media Might Be Treading Water, Experts Say

By Sarah Fister Gale

May. 6, 2013

A couple of years ago, General Electric Co. wasn’t satisfied with how it was bringing good ideas to life internally.

Like most global organizations, GE struggled to create connections and share corporate information among its 300,000 employees.

So, in January 2012, the company launched GE Collab, a custom social media platform that is fundamentally changing the way GE employees communicate and collaborate. The platform features centralized dashboards and calendar-sharing tools to foster easy collaboration, and innovative user environments, called Streams and Canvas, that mimic the way consumers interact on popular social networking sites. The tools allow employees to follow each other, add hashtags to comments for easy searchability and link discussions to documents so the context of the conversation remains with the file.

“For years, we dabbled in virtual collaboration tools, but this pulls it all together,” says Ron Utterbeck, GE’s corporate CIO. “It’s solving the basic problem of how to find the right expert in a large organization.”

GE is among the many companies tapping trends in social networking to alter the way work is done and people are managed. And while few companies have the resources to build custom internal platforms, business leaders around the globe have begun to integrate social media tools into their business processes to improve collaboration, engage potential recruits and promote the corporate brand via employees’ own social networks. From posting company updates on LinkedIn and Twitter to collaborating with far-flung employees via SharePoint or Yammer, these technologies have infiltrated and improved the way employees do their jobs.

Despite success stories like GE Collab, many HR managers remain skeptical of the benefits social media brings to the workplace. According to a new report by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania, a majority of HR professionals complain that young employees abuse social media in the workplace, citing text messaging, inappropriate use of the Internet and excessive use of Twitter and Facebook as the most common violations. Some companies go so far as to ban all social media use in the workplace and block access to them via the corporate network in an effort to stop employees from wasting time online. But the data suggests that trying to deny today’s social media reality means missing out on better business results. Consulting firm Towers Watson & Co. has found that among employees who use internal social media tools for work-related purposes, 41 percent report improved productivity.

What’s ultimately needed is a new approach to management, experts suggest. Employers can reap the rewards, such as greater engagement and productivity, and avoid pitfalls if they embrace the new “social” paradigm, says Kathryn Yates, a global practice leader for communication and change management at Towers Watson. “Managers have to stop being afraid of these tools,” she says. “The key is to train managers and employees about how to use social media in a productive way.”

In just the past decade, social media has surged from a college student pastime to a full-fledged corporate phenomenon. Facebook was founded in 2004, but by December 2012, it had an average of 618 million daily active users. Similarly, LinkedIn and Twitter also have experienced skyrocketing growth.

To be sure, the explosion of social media activity carries risks for organizations. They range from tricky questions about whether companies or employees own social media content and contacts to the possibility that employees will embarrass the brand with ill-advised tweets to concerns about complying with National Labor Relations Board guidelines on protected employee speech. In addition, young employees in particular are defiant about their social media activities. In a recent survey, nearly 3 out of 4 millennial workers said they don’t obey corporate information technology policies, and 66 percent said IT departments have no right to monitor their online behavior, even if that behavior is conducted using company-issued devices on corporate networks.

And as the York College of Pennsylvania survey shows, there are legitimate fears that social networking equates to “social not working.”

“It is often a concern we hear that employees will spend their time playing on social networks rather than working,” says Adam Wootton, director of social media and games at Towers Watson.

But to ban all social media use in the workplace and block access to social media sites is not the best approach, Wootton says. “A blanket ban on social media or draconian rules is more likely to lead to employees just using their smartphones or other channels to use their preferred social networks.”

On the other hand, companies should not adopt a complete hands-off approach, experts say. Improved productivity will only come when employees understand the right and wrong way to use social media on the job, and managers provide guidance on what’s expected, Yates says. “Most people will respond appropriately if you communicate that social media at work is OK as long as it’s used to get your job done and doesn’t compromise your performance or that of others,” she says.

Companies increasingly are getting that message. They are welcoming social media and weaving into the way they do work.

Consider network communications technology company Cisco Systems Inc. As part of its new-hire training, every employee at Cisco is educated about the appropriate way to use social media, and unless they are blogging as a spokesperson for the company, they are instructed to note that their comments do not necessarily reflect those of the brand.

But after that management trusts them to do the right thing, says Brett Belding, Cisco’s senior manager of IT mobility solutions. “It’s not our responsibility to police how people work. It’s about whether they get their jobs done.”

This willingness to trust employees is part of the broader corporate culture at Cisco, which acknowledges that employees’ work and personal lives bleed together, he says. “We don’t care if someone checks Facebook at work, because we know eventually they are going to work a 10-hour day or take a 9 p.m. call.”

Cisco also recognizes that when employees post to social media, it can benefit the brand. As Belding points out, he is just as likely to tweet about his next speaking engagement as he is to post pictures of his kids—and both types of posts bring value. “It humanizes the company,” Belding says. “It shows the world that we are not just a logo. We are people.”

Cisco’s employees are also experiencing greater productivity through the use of the company’s internal WebEx Social platform. The tool makes it easier for dispersed teams to collaborate virtually, which cuts downtime, reduces travel and face-to-face meetings, and enables them to get feedback from a broader circle of Cisco experts in less time.

“I can post a configuration on the network, and five minutes later an engineer will tell me why they wouldn’t do it that way or what I should do to improve it,” Belding says. “It’s a lot more efficient than emailing documents back and forth.”

Cisco’s internal social network also provides Belding with a customizable dashboard that lets him see his newsfeed, check meetings, review work streams and approve purchase orders or vacation requests in a few clicks. “It takes a lot of friction out of the process when you put all of that information into a single view.”

At GE, Utterbeck started building the custom collaboration tool in 2011 in an effort to improve teamwork and make it easier to access corporate knowledge. GE Collab is helping to make those searches easier, and to bring the GE community closer together. “It’s like crowdsourcing information,” he says. “I can ask a question, and within one minute, five different people in the company will tell me what I need to know.”

And it’s only just the beginning; Utterbeck’s team continues to roll out new features and is working on advanced search tool that make it easier to identify expertise in the employee population by looking at what people write, the groups they participate in and their past work experience.

Cisco and GE may be leading the trend to embrace social media for workplace management, but many organizations are just beginning to figure out how these tools can support their broader strategic business goals.

In most companies, social media as a corporate tool begins with recruiting. Talent managers use Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube to educate potential recruits about the company, promote the corporate culture and mine potential candidate pools.

“It’s a great way to put your message out there,” says Corey Munoz, the Arlington, Virginia-based director of talent management for BAE Systems, a global defense and aerospace company with 100,000 employees worldwide. Just two years ago BAE blocked the use of Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms on the company’s network. Now, however, it supports employees’ use of social media, and takes advantage of popular sites to woo new recruits. “Because we are a U.K. company, we are less visible in the U.S., so we use social media sites to engage potential recruits and to communicate with them about our company.”

His team posts videos on YouTube featuring employees talking about their roles on cutting-edge projects. They also have corporate profiles on Facebook, Flicker, Twitter and LinkedIn, and host a LinkedIn group for high-performing BAE alumni. The LinkedIn group serves two roles, Munoz says. It helps BAE’s best employees stay connected, and at the same time it demonstrates that the company values and supports its top talent. “It sends a signal to potential employees that we have a robust high-potentials program,” he says.

Putting a strong corporate message out via social media is vital for attracting top talent in today’s workplace. Forty-seven percent of employees say a company’s online reputation matters as much as the job offer, according to a recent survey from staffing services firm Spherion Staffing.

Employees are looking for a clear corporate mission that is reinforced by a company’s social media profile and practices, says Sandy Mazur, a division president at Spherion. “Both of which have significant implications for how well businesses attract and engage their workforce.”

Munoz credits BAE’s change in attitude about social media to the leadership of Linda Parker Hudson, the company’s president and CEO who came onboard in 2009. “She is driven by technology, and has set the tone” for social media use around that, he says. She also blogs regularly, and encourages employees to post comments and repost company updates to their own social networks, and to use tools like Yammer and SharePoint to build communities of practice and network with each other. “It energizes employees and makes them feel connected,” he says. “It’s not like the old email discussions threads that no one ever read. These tools generate discussions.”

Being able to connect with peers is a vital piece of the corporate social media value proposition, says Hope Koch, a Baylor University associate professor of information systems. And those connections don’t all have to be directly related to a specific project or business outcome. Social media tools can also serve to build a stronger corporate culture by fostering more personal connections, she says.

Koch studied the use of social media at a large financial firm where new recruits built a homegrown network to connect and collaborate. The employees, who had been recruited from college campuses all over the country, used the site to share information about apartments and restaurants, help each other get acclimated to the company, and build new friendships in an unfamiliar environment. “It humanized the workplace,” she says.

These softer connections benefited both the employees and the business, because it led to a greater sense of organizational commitment and better employee engagement. “For millennials, mixing their work life and their social life via online social networking created positive emotions for the employees who use the system,” Koch says. “These emotions led to more social networking and ultimately helped the employees build personal resources like social capital and organizational learning.”

This type of personal engagement drives direct business value, Yates says. Research from Towers Watson shows that highly engaged employees generally produce better business outcomes than their less-engaged co-workers. The research also shows that organizations with high levels of sustainable engagement—which describes the intensity of employees’ connection to their organization—enjoyed an average one-year operating margin close to three times higher than that of organizations with low levels of engagement.

GE is already seeing such benefits because of Collab. The platform has more than 200,000 active users, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “We solve problems faster, and we have more confidence in the business choices we make,” Utterbeck says.

GE’s leadership is equally impressed, giving Utterbeck full support for the project. “They want people from all levels of the organization to be able to collaborate and communicate just as if we were a small company,” he says. By harnessing the power of social media, he’s enabling just that.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in the Chicago area. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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