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Janine Milne

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Social media trends: Moving into the mainstream

The opportunities and possibilities offered by social media are limitless – and that’s the problem for many HR professionals.
The question is where exactly do you start and how do you know what will work for your business?
The simple answer is: just start somewhere, for the beauty of social media is that it takes neither much time nor money to get a project off the ground.
For most HR functions, the starting point is recruitment. According to Paul Ashford, operations director at online HR software provider, Vaado Software, some 66% of HR professionals rely on LinkedIn to headhunt individuals and fill roles, while Facebook is employed to actively promote a company’s profile.
“Individuals looking to work within a particular organisation can log on and see what the company is about, have access to images and videos and generally get a feel for the company structure,” he explains.
But usage is beginning to change. Chris Phillips, vice president of marketing for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Oracle‘s talent management Software-as-a-Service acquisition, Taleo believes: "Organisations are definitely moving beyond having a quick check on Facebook and starting to be more structured and systematic.”
Looking beyond recruitment, however, the key opportunity for HR is to exploit social media’s credentials as a communications medium. The channel could be used to transform communications in a change management programme, for example.
Stephen Brooks, specialist in people management at PA Consulting Group, explains that, traditionally, the management of communications has been a one-way street, but social media offers a way of engaging the people actually involved in the change more effectively.
Communication and collaboration
"You have to think about whether social media could help you engage with people you need to change and get messages over in a better way and make communication more continuous. Most change management programmes make a big communication at the beginning and then there’s nothing,” he says.
But social media tools provide the organisation with an easy way to keep people informed by providing them with short messages and updates. Rather than go through focus groups, the company can also obtain instant feedback about what people really think.
Although this process may well turn up some unpleasant comments or awkward questions, it is better to experience them in an open forum than to have people suffer from festering resentment in private or complain to others in public.
Brooks also points out that these kind of open forums tend to be self-moderating. “When people whinge, other employees will say ‘no, that’s not right’,” he says. “Work is a society and, if you behave badly, your peer group will take against you.” 
But social media can also be used as an informal learning tool to help capture those ‘water cooler moments’ and share the information with the masses.
As Phillips explains: “A lot of traditional learning is course- or curriculum-based and what social media is good at is facilitating more informal learning – it could be a book you’ve read or something you’ve seen on YouTube. It gives you the ability to network and share that knowledge.”
Ashford also points out that YouTube is an ideal channel to distribute more official training material.
“YouTube has not been utilised to its full effect – the infrastructure is there, it doesn’t have to be linked to a corporate network, and employees can access information easily via a PC or mobile. From an HR perspective, YouTube should become very important,” he says.
But this ability to communicate in a more immediate fashion can also help to create an environment that supports greater collaboration – another area of huge potential for social media. If someone has a work problem, they can throw it out to the group, get a discussion growing and tap into the wisdom of crowds.
A democratic tool
Brooks refers to a company in the defence sector that managed to solve a problem in a month that would normally have taken a year using just this method because its employees worked together and bounced ideas off each other, using social media as their communications tool. 
“Problem-solving often comes from a different discipline, applying the logic to a different discipline,” he explains.
One problem for HR professionals in all of this, however, is that they cannot police or dictate how staff choose to use social networks. Instead the idea is that, if you want people to innovate, you have to give them freedom to do so.
HR does need to set some ground rules in terms of what can be said or not, but they are really just an extension of usual rules of conduct. The thing to bear in mind, however, is that social networks are not a top-down tool: they are democratic.
But using them should not be seen as a loss of central control, but rather as a means of truly empowering the workforce. 
From a talent management perspective, meanwhile, social media also opens up the possibilities of building a much more rounded picture of employees’ potential.
As Derek Irvine, vice president of client strategy and consulting at employee recognition software and services supplier, Globoforce says: “A characteristic of social media is you are able to see who is connected to who.” 
Companies can begin to see who the movers and shakers are in the organisation as well as who is appreciated by their peer group, which can augment the official appraisal system. “You can identify up and coming talent if people are frequently recognised for things they’ve done or for leadership,” says Irvine. 
Love it or loathe it, social media cannot be ignored and will quickly become part of the work fabric, just as the internet has done. “Social media will become part of the way you get HR challenges solved and it will be less and less a freestanding topic, just as nowadays we don’t think of the internet as something separate,” Phillips concludes.

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