Workplace Culture

Social Work

By Susan Ladika

Sep. 8, 2010

After the housing bubble burst, agents from Long Realty in Tucson, Arizona, felt desperate to find a safe haven to discuss the complexities of the current real estate market.

Some joined other real estate agents in chats on the wide-open Facebook social network, but anyone could see their comments, including clients and bankers. The agents didn’t always exercise discretion when the discussion turned to more sensitive business matters. “Having that conversation on Facebook is not really the right venue,” says Kevin Kaplan, Long’s vice president of marketing and technology.

The firm didn’t want to stifle the free exchange of ideas and opinions, so it established Long Connects, an internal social networking site designed solely for employees to keep the conversation flowing but confine it to a secure environment. On Long Connects, for example, an agent can ask colleagues about their experiences dealing with a particular bank without worrying about prying eyes. “Our company has always had a culture of being collaborative” inside the office, Kaplan says. But with agents dispersed around the state, “we needed to break through the boundaries of the physical plant” with a safe forum for exchanging ideas and opinions.

Long Connects is clearly a hit, with nearly 2,500 posts in about a year. David Winter, a member of the firm’s short sales resource group, regularly trades advice with fellow agents about the ins and outs of short sales—properties sold for less than the amount owed on the mortgage to avoid foreclosure. When the firm first discussed introducing an internal social network last fall, “I sort of equated it to a virtual water cooler,” Winter recalls. Instead, he has found a safe place where the firm’s 1,500 employees “can pipe in with the answer to a question, instead of just the three people who are right there by the water cooler.”

Given the immense popularity of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, a growing number of companies are developing or purchasing their own social networks. The internal networks might feature employee blogs, wikis to help streamline project collaboration, employee profiles highlighting areas of expertise, training courses, or discussion groups for both business and personal issues.

Consulting firm Towers Watson & Co. surveyed more than 400 firms this year and found that 30 percent used internal social networking for HR purposes. About 44 percent of the users found that the networks met or exceeded expectations, with most of the others saying that it was too soon to tell or they didn’t know. Sites for various teams, such as marketing, project management and sales, were particularly effective for employee communication, talent management and career development, respondents said.

Respondents who have not adopted internal social networking for HR purposes said they were too busy to explore the option, it isn’t a current priority, or they don’t believe there’s a strong business case for creating such tools.

Connecting workers
First and foremost, companies with social networks want to satisfy their employees’ need to feel connected. Employers realize that social networks are critical selling points in attracting members of the Millennial Generation who have grown up texting and tweeting and prefer Facebook to face time. The Millennial Generation is “horrified at how unconnected people in many organizations are,” says Andrew Wootton, a senior consultant with Towers Watson.

Companies that ban Facebook and other social media from their computer systems especially need an internal social network to attract young people. Of course, such bans won’t stop Facebook addicts from visiting the site on their smart phones while at work. In fact, in a recent survey conducted for Cisco Systems Inc., half of the 2,000 employees from corporations around the globe admitted that at least once a week they ignore corporate policies prohibiting social media in the workplace.

Companies that champion social networking believe it enhances communication throughout the organization. Employees are less likely to tune out corporate messages if they’re delivered interactively as a live chat or a blog posting. And by paying attention to the buzz on their networks, companies can “catch the rumblings of disgruntled employees” or detect potential problems with products and services, says Sherrie Madia, co-author of The Social Media Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Business Exponentially With Social Media. Some companies are even setting up alumni social networks that let them stay in touch with former employees and perhaps hire them again down the road. Corporate social networking “is bottom line driven,” Madia says. “It’s not just about fluff.”

But not every internal social networking system has proved to be of great value. Dow Chemical Co. introduced My Dow Network in late 2007, hailing it as a way for current and former employees to stay connected and improve collaboration. But Dow disbanded the system because of “the global economic crisis,” spokesman David Winder told Workforce Management. The company declined to comment further about its social networking experiment.

Many companies worry that social networks will be a security risk that could expose proprietary information or details of employees’ personal lives. When Intel Corp. adopted “social computing” technology, it didn’t do so lightly. The chip maker wanted to encourage employee interaction and make information and expertise readily accessible globally. But first it increased employee training to reinforce the fact that social computing fits the code of conduct governing communication via the Internet, phone services and e-mail.

Its information security team also conducted an extensive risk assessment, which concluded that internal social networking didn’t introduce new risks but could increase existing risks because of the “one to many” nature of the medium. The risk of inappropriately sharing classified information, for instance, is greater with a social networking tool than with an e-mail sent to a single individual. As an added precaution, the company developed a usage policy that makes it clear that employees must treat Intel confidential data with care.

Some companies also fear that social networks will be a drain on employees’ productivity. Zachary Misko, global director of Kelly OCG, says his company initially blocked access to social networks, dismissing them as “just a fun thing, just a waste of time.” But as members of his team urged their customers to use social media for recruiting, they began to push for it at Kelly OCG, the outsourcing and consulting group at staffing firm Kelly Services Inc. “If you’re going to talk the talk [to clients],” Misko says, “you need to be able to walk the walk.”

Rather than launch an internal social network, however, the company opted to form a private networking group on LinkedIn. Misko believes the LinkedIn group is convenient for people who are traveling to access from their smart phones or hotel rooms. By using LinkedIn, “people are more engaged,” he says, and they can keep track of what co-workers are up to and share best practices.

Beyond Facebook
It’s the word “social” that makes some companies anxious. “Your mind immediately goes to Facebook and Twitter,” and companies fear it will prove to be a distraction for employees, says Tony Brice, an executive at Sabre Holdings Corp., a travel services company that owns the online site Travelocity. Sabre was a pioneer in internal social networking, establishing its own site called Sabre Town in 2007 for its employees and contractors around the world.

Sabre recently turned its expertise into a new business called cubeless, a social networking platform that it customizes for other organizations. “You can’t force people to use this,” Brice, vice president for customer success for cubeless, tells his clients. “But if you deliver value, you hope they will.”

The three main features of Sabre Town are a Q&A section, which allows users to search for employees with certain expertise, such as Java programming; profiles of employees that show their skills, experience and customer contacts; and job function groups such as project managers.

Sabre Town also includes Mom2Mom and other groups that were formed for more personal reasons. “We realize the line is disappearing between personal and business,” Brice says, as employees work from home or take care of personal matters from the office. “Solving their problems pays off in the long run in terms of employee satisfaction and productivity.”

While the Mom2Mom group had been created under the auspices of the human resources department, it gained more traction with the advent of Sabre Town. Women throughout the company use the group to seek advice about pediatricians and day care centers, commiserate about problems at home and work, and help juggle work and motherhood.

With Mom2Mom, “you don’t feel quite so alone,” says senior project manager Amy Dillon, a mother of four, one of whom has special needs. She says she sometimes walks into a meeting where another member of Mom2Mom is present and feels “this instant bond” even though they’ve never met in person before.

Momentum Worldwide, a New York-based marketing agency, also allows both professional and personal use of its corporate social network, which features videos of employees’ work as well as blogs and wikis. One employee, for example, makes jewelry at home and blogs about it during her free time on a section of the network that is open to the public.

While some organizations might frown on using internal social networking for personal purposes, Stephanie Rudnick, vice president of global communications, says employees receive training in appropriate behavior on the site. They are not allowed to “bash anyone” or post pornography or other inappropriate materials, she says. The bottom line is that “at the end of the day, we all get our work done.”

Twenty-something employees are the “power users” of Momentum’s social network, but Rudnick says baby boomers also find it helpful in keeping up to date on information affecting clients and the marketing business. Boomers “don’t necessarily build wikis,” she says, “but they use them.”

Rudnick also sees geographic differences in usage. Employees in the Americas, Europe and the Middle East quickly joined in the social network, but in Asia, people are more hesitant because they aren’t as accustomed to candid workplace discussions. “It’s way too transparent for them,” Rudnick says.

Global strategy
  For IBM Corp., connecting its 400,000 employees around the world is one of the primary goals of its vast collection of social networking tools. Cyberspace transcends national borders and enables workers to create ties across long distances and collaborate more effectively. While John Rooney, program manager for collaboration and innovation, can’t measure the precise return on investment from IBM’s site, called w3, he says it clearly “contributes to the integration of our company on a global basis. It’s seen as part of our ability to succeed.”

IBM sees its corporate social network as a complement to its use of Facebook and Twitter to promote products and services, offer insights about technology trends, drive traffic to its corporate website and attract people to trade shows. The company boasts that it has “the largest corporate-wide communities on all the social media sites.”

The internal w3 is like a candy store for social media fans. Employees can create personal profiles similar to those on LinkedIn, bookmark websites and news stories of interest, comment on company blogs, contribute to wikis, share files, and gain knowledge from white papers, videos and podcasts. Rooney especially likes the file-sharing feature, which gathers documents into a repository open to anyone searching for specific information.

Wikis also are a “tremendous productivity enabler,” he says, because teams can brainstorm together to write and edit a document. There’s no longer the need to e-mail a document to 10 people, who each make their own changes and then make even more changes to their colleagues’ changes.

IBM used wikis to craft its social media usage guidelines, allowing anyone to comment and change the wording until a final version was completed. Among other things, the final guidelines urge employees to identify themselves and note that they are expressing their views, not IBM’s; respect other people’s privacy, as well as copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws; avoid potentially inflammatory topics such as politics and religion; and not pick fights with competitors or the media.

Tiered approach
Some companies slice their social networks into tiers.

Alcatel-Lucent launched its Engage network in April and included groups with different levels of accessibility. Anyone can take part in the public group discussions, but employees must be approved by the system administrator for private groups focused on a specific subject, like sales. There are even confidential groups, such as one created to review nominations for a corporate award.

The Paris-based maker of telecommunication network equipment has gradually rolled out Engage to more than 23,000 of its 80,000 employees in 130 countries. English is the common language, but a group that pops up in Madrid is likely to communicate in Spanish.

Office employees are typically the most active users of corporate social networks, at least partly because of the logistical problems for workers in manufacturing and warehousing facilities. At Quad/Graphics Inc., a printing company based in Sussex, Wisconsin, more than three-quarters of the 28,000 employees work in manufacturing, and they tend to participate less in the TeamSites internal network than office employees sitting in front of a computer all day. Groups of production workers either share a computer or must find a computer kiosk.

Still, “a good chunk” of blue-collar workers are actively engaged, says Matt Kammerait, marketing and social media specialist at Quad/Graphics. He notes that many employees use the social network to propose new projects, which the company’s Innovation Council reviews. It then posts the most promising ideas on the network so fellow workers can comment before it decides which ones to pursue.

For some companies, it’s challenging to coax employees to chime in on the social network, whether or not they have ready access to a computer. Advantage Sales & Marketing in Irvine, California, began using Cornerstone Connect about 18 months ago in a mentoring program linking young sales associates with baby boomers and other trainers. In the first two weeks after the program started, there were only 21 posts to the social network, but 807 people had viewed it and 45 had commented. “People are always a little hesitant to start,” says Wendie Whelan, human resources management system manager. “They don’t want to make the first post and don’t want to put themselves out there.”

But acceptance is growing. The company has observed that boomers seldom post, but the young sales associates will share what they’ve learned from their mentors. “Even though they’re dispersed around the country,” Whelan says, the social network gives the trainees “a sense of belonging to this community.”

Workforce Management, September 2010, p. 18-22Subscribe Now!

Susan Ladika is a writer based in Tampa, Florida.

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