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Corporate social networking: Why should HR embrace it?

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Corporate social networkingFrédéric Radier looks at the benefits that social networking can provide in the workplace, and offers some advice to help HR professionals implement a corporate network within the organisation.


Social networking sites have revolutionised communication and the art of personal marketing. A huge number of people now have profiles on sites such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn and spend a significant amount of time communicating with friends and colleagues via these sites, as well as using these tools as a means to create their own personal brand to stand out in the crowd.

Facebook alone has roughly 8.5 million users in the UK. Many businesses are now recognising that the communication benefits social networking technologies provide in the consumer world can also be applied to the corporate world, and as a result are looking at ways of harnessing Web 2.0 technologies.

Resistance to new technologies

For HR in particular, social networking represents a fantastic opportunity to create a sense of community among employees, to promote communication, and the sharing of knowledge and ideas, and as a result boost employee engagement. The problem is that HR has typically shied away from new technologies. Recent research from Clearswift found that one in five HR decision makers are not familiar with social networking technologies and two-thirds of HR professionals do not personally use them.

“For HR, social networking represents a fantastic opportunity to create a sense of community among employees.”

If we look at the benefits of a corporate network, then the choice to not pursue this technology could be a very costly mistake – as we’ve heard time and time again, the war for talent is getting fiercer so HR needs to do all it can to attract and retain the most talented individuals. HR needs to not just familiarise itself with social networking sites but also needs to seriously consider implementing a corporate networking solution to keep key talent.

What are the benefits?

Generation Y, which is three times the size of Generation X, is beginning to hit your talent pool. Just as it’s important for a company to change its marketing strategies to reach new consumer tastes, so is the need for HR to adapt its talent strategies. A social networking tool can be particularly effective at engaging Generation Y, for whom Facebook et al are part of everyday life. Furthermore, social networking is fast becoming the elusive multi-generational communication conduit comfortable for any age.

Social networking encourages collaboration, helping to foster knowledge and idea sharing right across the company. So for example, employees can communicate on items as diverse as what to do for the annual Christmas do, to coming up with new ways for boosting customer loyalty.

“Social networking encourages collaboration, helping to foster knowledge and idea sharing right across the company.”

Globally aware companies recognise the vast impact of YouTube, and understand that corporate networks also bring down geographical barriers enabling employees to easily talk to and share information with their colleagues in other offices, both in the UK and worldwide.

New recruits can also benefit from social networking through learning about the organisation and its culture, and connecting with others sharing similar experiences. This can help to speed up their induction into the organisation.

Vital to the X and Y generation is the ability to create a personal identity and brand to improve visibility and career mobility. By providing details on career goals, experiences and skills, HR and managers can get to know their employees better which can greatly help internal mobility programs that can reduce external recruitment costs.

Employees are empowered to interact directly with senior level managers, which may not have been possible before. This encourages employees to take a more active role in the development of their own career, and as a result, creates a stronger sense of company loyalty.

Employees can also post personal information, for example what music they are into, favourite films, sports, and hobbies. This presents a holistic view of the employee from both a personal and professional perspective and helps employees remove false stereotypes to better understand and engage one another.

Now that we have established the benefits, how should HR approach the implementation of a corporate network if it’s not sure where to start?

Implementing a social network

Before introducing any new technology, not just social networking, HR needs to develop a blueprint for implementation. This should include an assessment of the current IT infrastructure, i.e. is the infrastructure in place for social networking to be rolled out, or will upgrades need to be made?

HR also needs to identify any skill gaps within the department – are the right skills there to successfully roll out the new solution, for example IT and project management skills? If the skills don’t exist they will need to be brought in from external sources to ensure the project is a success. The blueprint must also of course include a budget and timeline.

The development of a business case is vital. This should clearly lay out the benefits of social networking in order to engage key stakeholders, and the objectives the company wants to achieve with a corporate network such as better internal mobility, improved employee satisfaction and reduced staff turnover. Within the business case, benchmarks must be established in order to assess the success of the network. For example – what is the target number of users for the new networking tool? Or if one of the goals is to boost internal mobility, how will this be measured?

Finally, a corporate social network is not MySpace or Facebook, but rather a professional environment that requires some basic ground rules on what is appropriate or inappropriate content. Guidelines for establishing forums and groups need to be thoroughly explored to prevent creating unintentional situations of exclusion that could be deemed discriminatory. For example, employees should be provided similar rights to opt-in or opt-out, and strategies for disciplinary actions for any misuse must be considered.

Ensuring its success

Sponsorship and active involvement at the highest rank is crucial to creating a new culture of active engagement to motivate a company. A misguided word from an executive can very quickly cause a project to fail, before it has even started. Once the network has been implemented, employees should not be left to discover it on their own!

“A corporate social network is not MySpace or Facebook, but rather a professional environment that requires some basic ground rules.”

Communication is absolutely vital to ensure take-up. HR must market the new tool to employees and provide some basic training for how social networking will be used within the company. For example, assign super users to initiate conversations, and to create groups and forums so that people are actively encouraged to use the network.

HR also needs to either monitor the network itself or appoint a team to do this in order to ensure that people are making the most of it. This many include dealing with any negative uses of social networking such as too much gossiping, or unsuitable comments.

The great advantage of an internal network is that there is no risk of embarrassment externally if an inappropriate comment is made as there is with sites such as Facebook. However, an internal network still needs to be monitored to avoid potential disclosure of confidential information or an impact on morale if someone says something negative.

Lastly, to assess its success, feedback should be sought from employees on the corporate social network. Find out what they enjoy about it, how much they use it, and how it benefits them in their everyday jobs. The benchmarks which were established in the business plan should also provide a way of measuring success, for example how much of an impact the corporate network has had on internal mobility.

The future is networking

Ultimately, the benefits of a corporate network are too strong to be ignored and HR should be embracing it now. Internal social networks can stimulate employee involvement and knowledge sharing, which ensures that every person within the business counts, helping to create a strong feeling of community. This, in turn, can help boost employee engagement and productivity. Research demonstrates a link between high employee engagement and enhanced business performance. During these hard times, surely anything which can improve engagement has to be taken seriously?


Frédéric Radier is vice president, operations, at Jobpartners.

7 Responses

  1. Don’t we need a new paradigm or a new lens?
    I suspect that we all have the tendency to think we have the answer to tomorrow’s challenges by using yesterday’s solutions. This approach may fail for irrelevance, or may cause some to flinch if our approach is too “new.”

    I shared some ideas bordering on innovative thinking with a group of HR folks in the medical sector — video link (cool new application) here – http://www.goyodeo.com/channel/?c=LAR2F22624, with 16 short segments. Blog link here http://carterfsmith.blogspot.com/2008/06/for-recruiting-on-social-web-add-some.html

  2. More on the benefits
    Thanks Lucie, much appreciated.

    Sorry I didn’t get time earlier to elaborate on what I think the organisational opportunities I referred to are.

    Social networking hasn’t been developed because we have uncovered new (2.0) opportunities in the internet, it’s emerged to satisfy a need – people’s very natural and very strong need to connect.

    This need is felt in organisations too (hence Ian’s point on enterprise social networking), and is why many of them are paying attention to things like teaming and collaboration across teams.

    If this is the case in your organisation, then using social media is probably going to help you do what you’re already doing. This is the big opportunity, not using these technologies within HR. And it falls within HR’s sphere of influence because the challenge isn’t about the technology (implementing this stuff is dead easy*), it’s about effective implementation and cultural change (in the direction that you’re already moving).

    This is a great opportunity for HR, and if you’re not familiar with the opportunity, I suggest you have a play with some of the technology (you can do this on a personal basis before you start trying to explain it and communicate the benefits within your organisation). Get yourself on Linkedin, set yourself up with a free blog (eg http://www.blogger.com) and go from there.

    (*OK, IT is probably going to have a few concerns about it, but don’t let them put you off!).

  3. Corrected link
    Hi there,

    I have now corrected your blog link, Jon, so it should now be working.

    Kind regards,

    Lucie Benson
    Editor

  4. Internal and external

    Yes, and interesting article, thank you. There are a few different types of social network however and it makes sense to clarify the distinction:

    Enterprise social networks, which are, in essence, social intranets and used to share and encourage collaboration within a company. These are company branded and typically closed to the outside world. I think this is primarily what Frédéric is writing about;

    Maintsream social networks like Facebook, MySpace and Bebo – the darlings and headline grabbers of socnets, but most popular with the young and generally businesses are not too welcome! It is certainly tough making a success of a presence on these, when most people are there to… er… socialise;

    Niche social networks, in to which business focused socnets are included. The next big wave. LinkedIn is the biggest, but its European equivalent is Xing. My own business, WeCanDo.BIZ, is also in this sector but using the medium to engage new customers and suppliers.

    For pure HR purposes I think LinkedIn is hard to beat as it is, after all, 23 million CVs. It’s not where I would head for new business relationships though.

    Ian Hendry
    CEO, WeCanDo.BIZ
    http://www.wecando.biz

    PS By the way Jon, your blog link above doesn’t work.

  5. Big opportunities outside of HR
    Thanks Frédéric, very interesting article.

    I think social networking can make a very big difference to organisations as it substantantially increases the opportunity to conect with other people and to develop relationships in an increasingly small world (hello again Jackie!).

    I work mainly as an independent consultant and most of my non-relationship based business comes to me via Linkedin. And if it can work for an individual it can work for an organisation too.

    But as I’ve recently argued on my own blog, http://social-business.blogspot.com/2008/06/cipd-hr-use-of-web-20.html I think the main opportunities lie outside of HR (ie in learning, recruitment, engaging certain segments of the workforce eg Gen Y etc), but still within HR’s locus of responsibility (ie in the way organisations work).

  6. Social networking is here to stay
    I like this article Frederic. I have just finished coaching a programme where young people were asked to look at this very issue for a big brand company. The basis was that the GenYers use social networking instinctively for all sorts of reasons and – as the employees of the future – it might be a good idea to harness what those might be.
    As the available technologies grow in this area I think personally we need to make a choice about how we choose to use them ( or not). I think organisations should be the same. If there is a blame/suspicion culture in an organisation I am not sure how it would work. But in a creative, supportive and nurturing one there could be many reasons to connect in this way.
    I have just been part of my first wiki. Collaborators in the project posted and edited documents, made suggestions and e-mailed each other within a specific password protected environment. All participants said how they valued keeping that project out of the general melee of day to day e-mail!

  7. Communication….
    Interesting article.

    As a member of more social networking sites that I can care to remember, as a part owner of one in hibernation (and of even more that I have departed) I have debated this with some real SN gurus, but have yet to see a concrete case for this that the telephone, a personal visit or – horror of horrors – an email couldn’t match.

    The means of networking can be provided, but you have to generate the desire to share. This is a “culture” thing, and will mimic behaviour from the top. Only in a truly blame-free non-suspicious environment will this work to advantage. Otherwise, it could merely be a means to hasten idle thoughts around the place, rather as email is being used at present.

    In spite of the zillions spent on buying sites such as MySpace, there has not yet been a really solid business case for these social networks as the model is still unproven over a sustainable period of time.

    I’d love to see a really good debate on this article.

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