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Social media is still finding its feet as an employee communication tool. A recent international study by software security firm Clearswift found that one in four companies was planning to invest more in social media this year, despite an increase in companies blocking employee access to social media (up from 9 per cent in 2010 to 19 per cent in 2011). Yet while managerial attitudes remain divided, many in the learning and development community are forging ahead with social media and, in the process, they are transforming the way people learn.Martin Baker, founder and CEO of The Charity Learning Consortium, believes that those still attempting to ban social media are fighting against progress. He likens it to the introduction of the telephone. “It was said then that you couldn’t put telephones on people’s desks because they’d spend all their time talking on them,” he says, adding that the current reality is that, even if organisations do ban people from accessing Facebook and the like on their work computers, they can just as easily access them on their smartphones.Proponents of social media, such as Nick Shackleton-Jones, group head of e-learning at BP, argue that utilising the medium within L&D can actually offer a greater breadth and depth of learning. “It’s always been the case that around 85 per cent of learning in organisations is informal,” he says. “The significance of social media is simply that it’s a technology that allows informal learning, extends it, and increases the efficiency and power of it. Where as before you might have learnt from the person sitting next to you, now you can learn from someone on the other side of the world. That’s the power of social media.”Perry Timms, head of talent & OD at the Big Lottery Fund, agrees with Shackleton-Jones: “People that I connect with across the HR community, in various organisational sizes and sectors, are all catching a wave around social media and its potential. It’s the connectivity that excites people most – it’s people’s preferred choice of interaction now.”
Which side of the firewall?
While many L&D practitioners have been pioneering its use, there are mixed views on which social media platforms to use. Alongside well-known sites such as Facebook and Twitter, a number of sites positioning themselves specifically for organisations and professionals have joined a marketplace previously monopolised by LinkedIn. While it’s possible to have invite-only or private communities within these, other organisations prefer to design bespoke internal platforms for increased control and data security.Timms admits these are issues The Big Lottery Fund grappled with. Its preferred answer was to develop a tool built by its own IT department, which Timms describes as a hybrid of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yammer. “We’ve called it Big Connect, an interface that people are familiar with, with status updates, groups and so on,” he says. “You are able to create a project or a group, which people can tag, like, or flag a desire to be involved in.” Creating an internal platform enables tweaks and changes according to an organisation’s needs, and also opens up greater possibilities for “data mining”, says Timms. “Something I’ve toiled with over my years in L&D is skills audits – often mass information gathering exercises that result in nothing – but with this tool we’re asking people to tag key skills, so we can do a skills search on the workforce. For example, if we’re looking for somebody with Six Sigma experience we could do a search on key words and identify them immediately.” Similarly at BP, Shackleton-Jones is trialling a bespoke tool called The Hub, which aims to mimic the functionality and look of popular social media sites, while enabling management ownership and control.However there is a strong argument for using sites that employees already use, says consultant Michael Silverman of Silverman Research, joint winner of last year’s CIPD People Management Award for excellence through technology. “I’ve seen organisations spend millions on new systems which now seem out-of-date. It’s difficult for companies that build their own platforms to evolve it themselves, whereas external sites are constantly evolving, and they’re free. Smaller companies tend to just use Google products, such as Gmail and Google Docs, whereas big companies are scared to do that. I’ve heard of one investment bank that pays for voice software that works like Skype, even though they could just use Skype!” Baker also argues the case for using existing sites. “If you are introducing one more thing, one more user name and password, a different look and feel, you are putting up barriers to learning. If you deliver content through Facebook, which many people use all the time and access several times a day, there are no barriers; it’s not a case of introducing another platform that’s similar to something they are using already, it actually is a platform that they are using already.”
How to get employees involved
Whether using external or internal platforms, the end result of a social network is dependent on its users. As Silverman puts it: “If there’s an open comments box at the bottom of a questionnaire, you’re probably not going to think too much about it. But if whatever you write stays there for all your colleagues to read, evaluate and rate, then what you write would be very different. You get a whole new level of insight, which realises the authentic voice of employees.” Getting employees online and involved, however, is easier said than done, says Shackleton-Jones. “The single greatest failing of social media implementation is the presumption that people will just come to this big empty space and fill it with their content,” he says. “With any platform, most people are coming to take something away, not contribute to it.” BP’s The Hub, he says, is filled with commissioned content to get it up and running – “content with an emotional impact, that connects with people... there’s very little on there that is more than two minutes long. For example, Discover BP is our induction programme [with short films of] new starters and experienced staff talking about their own experience of joining BP. That’s far better than lots of paperwork.”Timms, meanwhile, is taking a mixed approach that incorporates classroom learning for the more reluctant. “At the moment we’re letting it grow organically,” he says. “But there will be people who sit back and think ‘That’s not for me’, so we are bringing in a traditional classroom-based module, which is short but punchy, to give people the skills and know-how to use social media generally.”
The end of email?
Such are the power and potential of social media that some organisations are exploring the possibility of its replacing internal email altogether. Thierry Breton, chief executive of technology firm Atos, reportedly intends to phase out internal email completely by 2014 for the firm’s 80,000-strong workforce. He told the BBC in December that most young graduates joining the company were not using email any more, favouring instead instant messaging tools and social networks. “For most of them, when they joined Atos it was the first time they had ever worked with internal email tools,” he said, adding that research revealed the average Atos employee received more than 100 emails a day, only 15 per cent of which they found useful, and was spending 15 to 20 hours a week checking and answering internal emails.Timms agrees that social media “can take the heat off people’s inboxes”. “It makes communication much more about short messaging and signposting so that, internally, we can have a more targeted way for people to access the information they need and connect with the people they need to,” he says. Only time will tell whether other organisations will be following the lead set by Atos – or whether doing so would simply replace one source of information overload with another. But one thing is already clear: for the more enlightened organisations, and the more enlightened L&D professionals, social media could enable a step-change in workplace learning.
NingClaiming to be the “world’s largest platform for creating social websites”, Ning offers member profiles, groups, forums and chats, letting members share photos, videos and blogs. Its business-friendly features allow companies to own 100 per cent of content and member data, together with real-time analytics and privacy settings. It can also be integrated with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. According to its website, Ning has 90,000-plus customers worldwide (July 2011) and 65 million unique visitors monthly. uk.ning.com
YammerSpecifically aimed at businesses, Yammer lets employees share and connect with co-workers in a “private, secure enterprise social network”. According to its website, individuals can “collaborate in teams, see what your colleagues are working on, share ideas and get feedback, create and edit content, and receive updates from other enterprise applications.” Yammer claims it is used by more than 100,000 companies worldwide. yammer.comChatterAlso purporting to be “a free, private and secure social network just for your business”, Chatter describes itself as a “collaboration application that helps you connect with co-workers and share business information securely and in real time”. It says it is used by more than 100,000 companies around the world and claims it results in 27 per cent fewer meetings and a 30 per cent reduction in emails. chatter.comWorkCrowdAimed more at the employee, WorkCrowd is the “watercooler moment” of the social network world. It aspires to “transform your workplace to be socially enjoyable”, offering tools such as “chemistry” and “badges” to “make your profile look cooler, but also make it more appealing to your colleagues and employers”. It also matches up people who have similar interests, hobbies and preferences.workcrowd.com
LinkedInPerhaps the best known of the bunch, and still the original Facebook alternative for professionals not wishing to share their holiday photos with their managers. Allowing individuals to connect with each other and form networks of contacts, it is also used by organisations to have closed groups and private forums for discussion. LinkedIn claims to have 8 million-plus members in the UK (December 2011). linkedin.com