Yet Another Reason to Give Employees Access to Social Media

In the second-to-last paragraph of a standard article on the Microsoft-Skype acquisition in The New York Times, you’ll find this interesting assessment:

“Skype, analysts say, is evidence of the recent pattern of innovations coming first to the freewheeling consumer market – like instant messaging, social networks and video chat – and then cascading to businesses.”

There’s a lengthy list of well-reasoned arguments for adopting social media channels inside an organization (whether or not a company uses them externally). From Skype to wikis to micro-blogs, social tools and channels go beyond internal communications, supporting cross-functional collaboration, geographically dispersed teams, and innovation.

There was a time when departments like IT, training and corporate communications had to focus on upskilling employees to help them overcome technophobia and to drive productivity. Many, many cartoons and Help Desk jokes (“Hello. IT. Have you tried turning it Off and On again?”) entered the zeitgeist as a result. Those days have disappeared like Tivo, and the employee who knows less about apps and connected devices and SEO than IT is a rarity.

So, the ubiquity of social media in the world outside the organization should be near the top of any petition to the senior team. This isn’t a case for riding a trend or “if Jimmy gets a Mohawk and tattoo, I suppose you’ll want them, too” (or whatever the corporate equivalent of that mom-ism might be). It’s simply this: Employees are spending a great deal of their time outside your company using social media. And, like them or not, these channels are already inside company walls. (In fact, employees are so engrossed with social channels that many companies are erecting roadblocks to the access of the most common of these, such as YouTube and Twitter, fearing network-capacity issues and loss of productivity.) It becomes imperative, then, to the overall health of the company that we utilize common tools (even though they might be considered consumer, rather than corporate) to provide support to the people doing the work, so that their capabilities and knowledge-sharing aren’t thwarted by outdated systems.

Here’s the other aspect of this concern: Employees should bring their knowledge of the business to bear on the company’s tools. They shouldn’t have to bear with and MacGyver tools that aren’t remotely as sophisticated as the ones their kids use on iPads. For example, if a Twitter-type channel is inside the walls, and employees have free rein to use it, then they can mold it to support the unique and specific types of knowledge-sharing, information-flow, data-gathering and storage, collaboration, etc. that the work demands and that corporate culture needs. You may wind up with a vastly different looking channel than the micro-blog you started out with, but it’s most important that the technology supports the work and the employees who execute it and not the other way around.

Make it available, make it open, make it useful and robust, and you’ll never have to worry about employees sneaking “offsite” to use Twitter because the quality of and mindshare on the internal micro-blog is so helpful and (yes!) intriguing and valuable that they won’t need the consumer version.

A few tips:

It’s not (just) about communications 
Successful adoption, business productivity and strong return on investment depend on widespread use of these tools and channels. While corporate communications departments can be a business champion for social media, the greatest value comes from the support these channels offer to the essential business of the corporation. Utilizing them as communications channels is one piece of a much larger picture.

You don’t have to implement everything at once 
It’s a reality that infrastructure is difficult to fund in the corporate world (and not just during economic downturns; most companies outside of Silicon Valley make it especially difficult to get budget expenditures approved for operational expenses like IT). Make the case for one channel or tool at a time by developing clear ROI measurement, and it’ll be easier to prove value the next go-round.

Match tools with business need
Especially if the budget only allows for one tool, take the time to do the analysis to figure out which tool or channel will best support business-knowledge-sharing and the key work of the company.

Prepare the way with governance and usage guidelines 
And crowdsource these. Let users create governance (remembering that Legal and HR are in that crowd of users and will have their say, too), so the process of developing the rules of the road doesn’t delay implementation, won’t discourage employees with too many restrictions on usage before they even put their hands on the channels, and so that governance is followed as a matter of consensus rather than enforcement (because the “rules” were created by “us,” not “them”).