CIPD Podcast 85 - Social media: what's the point?

Date: 04/12/13 Duration: 00:18:18

In this podcast prolific tweeter Gemma Reucroft, HR Director of Tunstall Healthcare (UK) (@HR_Gem) speaks about how she’s used social media to network and learn, and how her company is now building social technologies into its communications framework. Mike Collins, Head of Customer Experience, DPG plc (@MikeCollins007) talks about a networked approach to L&D. and CIPD's Research Adviser Jonny Gifford (@jonnygiff) discusses the results of the survey Social technology, social business? The episode also includes the legal perspective from solicitor Ron Kane, Consultant Solicitor and Tutor in Law, Leicester University.


Philippa Lamb: Back in 2010 we made a podcast for this series about Social Media in the workplace. Back then most of us thought that as organisations learned more about it, they'd soon start to become less anxious about the risks and more open to the advantages that it might bring to their businesses but it hasn’t happened.

The CIPD has just published a new study looking at how employees and policymakers use social media right now. It reveals that while we are seeing attitudes change we’re definitely not seeing that social business revolution most experts predicted. True, millions of us do use social media at work but only a quarter of us are using it for work and that's not surprising when you hear that half of all organisations still ban social media on their office computers, even though it’s no secret 70% of us now own a Smartphone. 

Outside the workplace social media use has skyrocketed. Here in the UK 93% of 16 to 24 year olds and half of 45 to 54 year olds use social media every day. And while they might be doing it at work they’re not doing it as part of their working life. 

Jonny Gifford is a research adviser at the CIPD and he's the author of the new report. 

Jonny Gifford: There are about one in four of us who are using social media for work compared to three in four of us who are using social media for personal reasons. So it lags behind in the world of work. 

PL: It certainly does, so today we're asking what’s stalling the process, what organisations really feel about social media and what might change employer attitudes? Of course many organisations do use social media but most only see the value in its external capacity as a tool for engaging customers and building and enhancing their brand. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the social media survey revealed that the key reason many organisations don’t use it is that they just don’t quite see the point. According to Gemma Roycroft who’s UK and Ireland HR director at Tunstall Healthcare, a blogger and a great advocate for weaving social media into work, those so called vanity metrics we're all familiar with such as ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ are actually pretty meaningless. 

Gemma Roycroft: Having lots of followers doesn’t really mean anything. It’s whether those followers then translate perhaps into purchases of your products if that's what you’re aiming to do, or engagement with your brand. So followers for followers’ sake, I'm not sure I really understand. 

PL: Social media, if it is in workplaces at all, is often very token and even if you've established an internal communications platform Jonny Gifford doesn’t believe it necessarily means you’re really a responsive or a progressive organisation. 

JG: Of itself introducing a social media platform into your organisation is not going to transform the organisational culture. Yes, it’s going to give people a platform to have a voice but it’s not going to make the organisation listen more. 

PL: The tendency of organisations to use social media in only tentative or token ways largely stems from nervousness about the possible pitfalls of letting it operate freely and that fear can look well-founded with an increasing number of social media workplace cases reaching the courts. Ron Kane is a consultant solicitor and tutor in law at Leicester University. He thinks social media is provoking some very interesting questions. 

Ron Kane: Who owns Twitter followers and is there a value to Twitter followers? Laura Kuenssberg who left the BBC a few years ago had something in the order of 6,000 followers but they were following her @LauraBBC; when she went to ITV her followers migrated across. Is there a value there? You know, it’s kind of interesting territory. 

PL: LinkedIn is the cause of some legal wrangling too. 

RK: A recent case in relation to LinkedIn involved a publisher who wanted to restrain employees who had left the organisation from making use of that employer’s LinkedIn groups and that employer succeeded in the High Court in getting an injunction to restrain them using it. It seems to me that there's a degree of aversion to social media technologies because some employers are probably a little bit concerned about letting the genie out of the bottle. Well I'm sorry employers, the genie’s out of the bottle, get used to it and manage the genie. 

PL: Smartphone ownership has doubled in just two years so any efforts to ban social media at work are, as Ron said, pretty futile. One survey found that the average user checks their phone over 100 times a day, so clearly we're not ignoring social media updates even at our desks.

GR: If you want to waste time in an organisation you'll find a way to do it. If you want to tweet about your company, you'll find a way to do it. So you’ve really got to embrace it, the conversation’s happening anyway, which is what we usually say about social media. 

PL: I mean we've all been talking about social media for quite a long time. It’s not new; obviously it’s evolving but it’s not new. Are you surprised that the level of understanding is still quite low if we take the view that so many organisations are still trying to block it, ban it? Is it surprising they haven't quite grasped the potential here? 

GR: I'm not sure if I am surprised by it within an HR community. I think quite often within HR we can be a little bit risk averse. We worry about the worst case scenario, we worry about employment tribunals, we worry about whether we can manage these things effectively so it’s sometimes a little bit easier to take that route of trying to close it down and stop it but I firmly believe you can't. So to your earlier point, yes I think it’s growing, I think the understanding is growing but I think it’s still small and I see that within the HR community. There's a very, very active community of bloggers and tweeters but when you look at it in a context of the wider HR community in the UK it’s still a really small piece of it. 

PL: When it comes to workplace related social media use LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are now used by employees at all levels in organisations that allow it. Interestingly though the CIPD findings showed that senior leaders are the most avid users of social media for work purposes, perhaps because networking is particularly important for this group. And networking is just one of the ways in which Gemma uses it too. 

GR: I probably started to use Twitter a couple of years ago but blogging about 12 months ago I think, and why do I use it? It gives me lots of different things; it gives me ideas, it gives me challenge, it gives me great connections. So like many things when you start off with social media those relationships are virtual relationships. You get to know people online but for me that then transitioned into meeting some of these people at things like Tweet Ups and social and networking events, and then they’ve progressed into relationships, collaborations and friendships as well. So it gives me a lot of different things.

PL: Is this all around you as Gemma the HR or is this also around you as Gemma the private individual? 

GR: I think it’s a mix of both. 

PL: But that's a bit of a vexed issue for employers isn’t it, because that's their worry isn’t it, who are you tweeting about their organisation?

GR: It is and do I tweet things about my company? Sometimes yes, absolutely I do, certainly things like jobs I will tweet but… 

PL: I mean that's safe turf isn’t it? Do you ever tweet about stuff that's perhaps a bit more controversial? 

GR: No and I wouldn’t because I think you have a responsibility to your organisation so no I would never tweet controversial things about my employer. I might very well tweet controversial things about HR. 

PL: Meanwhile Tunstall Healthcare where Gemma works is slowly beginning to use social media internally too. 

GR: It’s been something the rest of the organisation hasn’t traditionally used a great deal but it’s something we are increasingly using much more. A lot of that has been around the traditional reasons that employers do it, so developing the brand, and certainly recruitment, but we’re starting to use it in other areas now as well. 

PL: What sort of things are you doing with it now? 

GR: Well one of the main things we're doing is using it for internal communication collaboration. We’re starting to use the social platform Yammer internally and I see that as just one of several channels that we will use. We still do the traditional stuff too. We still do the newsletters, the executive roadshows and briefings and the face-to-face stuff but I think what something like Yammer does is just one more tool within a communications framework. 

PL: The business benefits of using social media to open up and improve communication inside the organisation are well established now. Employers who said their organisations benefited a lot from social media were more likely to have a strong sense of their core purpose and to feel confidence in their senior leaders. Even though the research does show that only 12% of users are actually doing anything on social media that directly relates to revenue generation, Jonny Gifford doesn’t think that's a bad thing. 

JG: Personally I thought that that was quite encouraging because one of the key findings about this is that social media as it’s used in the world of work is very much about sharing, it’s about helping others as well as helping yourselves. If you think about the way that social media is presented very often in the media, posting Selfies and boasting, what our research shows is that the use of social media is not as narcissistic as often is implied. It’s perhaps a bit more noble. Very much it’s about being part of something that's bigger than yourself and it’s not transactional. Yeah we use it to generate revenue, to find new jobs, but it’s the inherent activity in and of itself that's what’s of worth. 

PL: As well as engagement and internal communication, learning and development is another area where social media is starting to make ripples. In the past two years there's been a significant increase in the number of HR and L&D professionals who think social media can play a crucial part in the way that training is delivered. But how can organisations harness those benefits? For Gemma Roycroft it’s all about being organic and individual. 

GR: I think for me I've learnt and developed through social media personally. I learn through tweets, I learn through blogs, I learn through the people that I've met. I print things off, it sends me towards articles, all that sort of thing. 

PL: Peer to peer learning. 

GR: Absolutely. So I think I've used it a lot for learning. I encourage my own team to use it for learning because it’s always there and of course it’s so accessible and it’s cheap too. I think the day where about 12 of you would pitch up to a training room and sit looking at a facilitator from 9 til 5 with a load of PowerPoint slides has really come and gone. 

PL: According to Jonny this form of L&D is just as valid as more formal versions and organisations need to start using it right now. 

JG: If you look at the numbers of employees who have access to e-learning through online platforms, it’s relatively low but if you look at how people use social media to find out more about stuff they’re interested in that doesn’t need to be directed by organisations, it’s happening all over the place. So I think that through social media we can broaden how we think about learning and development. 

PL: So do you think actually the learning and development part of this is bigger than we're realising, it’s just that it’s not organised by the companies, people are doing it for themselves and so perhaps it’s not being measured? 

JG: Absolutely. I mean I think that people do their own learning and development and I think that organisations should have conversations with employees to think about how they can support that if they want to support learning and development. 

PL: Another way of looking at this is to see how social media can sit alongside more traditional face-to-face methods. Mike Collins is head of customer experience at DPG Plc. In 2007 he attended an industry event exploring what a networked organisation could look like and he was so inspired he got straight down to building his own network. 

Mike Collins: That very night I went back and started my own community using a platform and without any kind of guidance or without any strategy just launched it within my own L&D team. 

PL: But from the start Mike ran into suspicion and anxiety. 

MC: Straightaway there was a fierce amount of resistance to it.

PL: Was there, who from? 

MC: Absolutely. From my colleagues in L&D, from the management teams within the organisation, and it wasn't necessarily the fact that it was the tool, it’s the fear of the unknown.

PL: So how did they articulate their problem with it then? 

MC: It hadn’t been through rigorous governance and sign off procedures. 

PL: Okay. 

MC: There were no guidelines. But my personal opinion is sometimes you've got to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. 

PL: The online learning community set up by Mike now has nearly 2,000 members here and abroad, all supporting each other’s professional development by sharing ideas and networking. Mike is under no illusions about why that might be unsettling some L&D facilitators. 

MC: It does threaten the traditional approach to learning and development that, you know, you might have heard the terms like the ‘Sage on the Stage’ or ITrain. What we're moving away from is this role and this idea of you being a trainer and the holder of all information to one of facilitative learning, where you are helping people connect themselves with information and to connect with one another. 

PL: All this doesn’t necessarily mean that traditional L&D techniques are going to be wholly replaced by social media but there is now good reason to think they will come to be augmented by it and it may change the relationship between the trainer and the trainee too. 

MC: Some ways in which I've seen it used very effectively is getting groups together before an event, getting them then to share the outputs of that event and the necessary tools, and then the follow ups in which people can continue to converse, continue to post and share. But again it does need a sort of facilitator, a community manager if you will within organisations and within learning and development to be able to provide guidance, direction, to facilitate conversations. 

PL: So where does all this leave HR trying to find the right balance between empowering their people and protecting their organisation? 

JG: I think there is a need for policies in place for social media. I think much of the work that's been done on social media and the world of work to date has been very much focused on the legal side and very much focused on the risk side. We need to get beyond that. So we need to start talking about how social media can actually benefit the organisation and not just think about risk aversion. However, we do need to give people clear guidelines. You need to have clear expectations of what is and isn’t acceptable. 

PL: But there is a tension that needs to be managed too. Ron Kane. 

RK: The trick between getting the balance right, between the rights of employees on the one hand and the rights of employers or organisations on the other. Within that you've also got to have the balance right between the right of privacy rights but also the rights of freedom of expression. 

PL: According to Ron the most important thing of all is to make your social media policy crystal clear to everyone, that and constantly updating it to keep it current because in the social media sphere things change fast.

RK: I think organisations, obviously subject to their size, ought to think about having a small group that keeps the social media acceptable-use policy under regular review, but that's the trick for me. And I think that you need to have that group comprised of the right people. You need key line managers, you probably need one of your IT experts, HR have got to be informed because they’re going to be alive to the implications and they’re going to be tapping into their lawyer. But the other dimension for me is make that group multi-generational. 

PL: And across all levels of seniority? 

RK: Yeah absolutely, absolutely. Because if you don’t, dare I use the expression, get down with the youth, you’re missing a trick. 

PL: And perhaps Gemma frames the challenge facing organisations most clearly. 

GR: I think for me right now, social media presents individuals, HR practitioners and companies with opportunities and what I don't think you will have in the long term is a choice. 

PL: Get this right and you could reap excellent rewards and perhaps even completely reshape your organisation and power structures in ways you never imagined. Here’s Mike Collins. 

MC: For me it’s about flow of information within organisations, so you either have depositories and you either kind of lock information away or you try and help that information flow around your business. For a lot of organisations it’s a cultural shift from the command and control kind of, “we say, you do”, to one of openness, transparency and two-way communication or many-to-many communication where organisations can tap into a rich vein of experience and wealth of knowledge that they didn’t know they had. I like one of the phrases ‘quiet talent’ in that they have people within their organisations who have a fantastic knowledge but they might not have the confidence or the presence or profile to be made aware of. However, using these tools anybody can have a voice within your organisation and I think for leaders, I think for HR departments, who recognise that they can start to tap into people power and collective intelligence within your organisation.


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