Tapping Into Social-Media Smarts
Employees share information in their personal lives. Companies can use those skills to improve workplace collaboration.
To recognize the huge potential social networking offers for companies looking to improve knowledge sharing and collaboration among their employees, consider these two facts:
• About half of company knowledge-management initiatives stagnate or fail.
• There are about 131 million U.S. Facebook users between the ages of 18 and 64, and more than 500 million world-wide.
That's more than half a billion people using the same kinds of tools so many companies have struggled to put to productive use. In their private lives, users of Facebook, Twitter and other social media are completely at ease forming communities of shared interests and keeping everyone up-to-date with messages, pictures and documents. Now they are ready to put those same tools to work at the office—to help everyone see who knows what, who needs what information, and how to coordinate their work.
In other words, employees already have the skills for more collaboration. It's up to companies to take advantage of them. Here's how to do just that:
Have employees identify areas that would benefit from greater collaboration.
Be explicit. Raise the subject with a question like, "If we had something like Facebook [or Wikipedia, YouTube, LinkedIn, etc.], what part of your work would be better?"
It's likely that many of your employees are already thinking about how they might apply these same tools to improve how they get their jobs done. In fact, they may already have started without you.
In some companies, teams have created Facebook groups around their projects to help them get to know their teammates and have a single place to store project documents. Other savvy teams have studied Facebook, and then asked their IT staff to create a similar online space for collaborative work.
In both cases, employees are taking action based on recognizing unmet needs for online collaboration and knowledge-management tools.
Don't say no to social networking because of concerns about public sites.
Many companies have valid concerns about security breaches, privacy issues, bandwidth hogging and loss of productivity when employees use social-networking sites like Facebook at the office. But social networking for a business doesn't have to involve public sites. There are many products that allow businesses to set up private systems with internal database, search and chat functionality. Socialtext Inc., Altus vSearch from Altus Inc., Yammer Inc., and Chatter from Salesforce.com Inc. are a few.
These tools support social networking but let the company stay in control and maintain security. Altus vSearch, for example, lets companies capture videos of formal presentations and their associated slides—or informal how-tos and any other video content—and make the material searchable. As on YouTube, viewers can choose to follow particular people or topics. The video files can also integrate personal-profile information about the employees involved. The result is a database of work-related video for training, informal learning, reuse of presentations, and a more-developed, work-focused social network. Material can be made available to employees only, to invited outsiders, or to the public.
Set clear guidelines for both external and internal social networking and collaboration.
Make it clear to employees that they are personally responsible for the information they post and that real names should be used. Instruct employees as to what information is confidential or proprietary to the company, and how they can get the most out of sharing without putting company secrets at risk. In choosing or creating a system, ask your IT department about their biggest concerns around social networking and how these concerns can be dealt with while still supporting collaboration.
Start with goals everyone can understand.
Communicate to everyone at the company what you want to achieve, such as better team collaboration or brainstorming for new product or service ideas. Send a clear message that social networking at work should be about work. And make sure everyone at the company is part of the network. Don't build barriers that might exclude people just because of their position in the organization. New ideas can come from unexpected places.
Make policies and procedures supportive.
Employees will need to make social networking part of their work routines—interacting and answering questions from one another. They'll also need incentives to collaborate. Raises and promotions based solely on individual performance won't encourage workers to share new ideas or possible solutions.
It's also important for employees to be able to track the results when they share an idea, suggest a solution or support a team working on the other side of the world.
Prepare for expectations of greater democracy.
Social networkers are accustomed to seeing what their friends are doing, expressing their opinions in polls and being welcomed into conversations. Not all companies wish to be as transparent and open to dialogue as the public social-networking environment is. But there will be pressure for greater transparency in the workplace as social networking is introduced.
"If social media can democratize a country, you had better believe it can democratize your company," Vijay Gurbaxani, a professor of information systems and computer science, said in a speech to chief information officers in February in New Delhi. Mr. Gurbaxani teaches at the Paul Merage School of Business, University of California, Irvine.
You can sidestep tensions by being ready with clear and thoughtful responses as to where employees can expect transparency and open dialogue and where they cannot.
Be open to change.
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are some of the first collaboration models your workers encountered, but they won't be the last. Some of your employees may now be experimenting with mobile video and location-aware applications. Always be willing to learn from employees about new technologies.
Dr. Griffith is a professor of management at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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