Harnessing the Power of Social Networking

Felix Kugel
Vice President of Manpower Inc. (USA)
and Managing Director for Russia & CIS

Companies have often played catch-up in understanding how to harness new technologies without overmanaging them. The latest technology innovation to impact the workplace is social media — such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter — that let individuals connect, communicate and share information with revolutionary ease and speed. The growth of these social networks has been staggering, and people are using them everywhere, including in the workplace. That is what has really worried business leaders. What are their concerns, and how realistic are they?

Indeed, social networking raises real concerns about its effect on organizational productivity, reputation and security. A Manpower survey revealed that one in five organizations has instituted a formal policy on employee use of external social networks, mostly to avoid productivity loss.

This is quite understandable. As social networking increases in popularity, employees, especially younger ones, blur the distinction between work use of social media and personal use, redefining the very meaning of work. In this case employers must get ahead of this curve, finding ways to use social media to help employees achieve the proper balance.

Another Manpower survey showed that just 4 percent of employers worldwide say their reputation has been damaged at some point by employees using social networking.

A persistent danger inherent in the use of social networking web sites involves the risk of outside instructions into company IT networks. Such attacks can mean the loss of sensitive data, as well as IT service disruptions. But again, much of the risk lies in the behavior of employees. Only by changing that behavior can companies take a significant step toward security.

Indeed, social networking raises real concerns about its effect on companies. That doesn’t mean, however, that organizations shouldn’t develop and enforce formal guidelines on the use and abuse of social networking. The focus of these guidelines should not be to try to control employees’ social networking behavior, but to channel its use in positive, creative directions that can benefit employees as well as have a positive impact on the corporation as a whole. There is no turning back from social media. The key is to unlock its value to the organization and to embrace its productive use.

We recommend that companies consider the following steps to promote the constructive use of social networking:

Challenge employees to innovate. Promote the positive use of social media by encouraging employees to come up with ways to use these tools to do their job better. People love to discuss their successes. So, get employees to describe how they have used social media tools in new ways to generate leads or serve customers better, for example. You can focus these efforts by function or interest, as needed. Follow the lead of so many innovative organizations and run a contest for the best new ideas.

Tap internal experts.

Teach by encouraging employees who regularly use social networking in their jobs to discuss and demonstrate how it’s done. Keep track of the new ideas that flow from this kind of mentoring exchange and share the ideas and best practices.

Let employees “own” the governance.

The foundation of any healthy social network is an engaged community. Let your employees help develop and enforce your company’s guidelines. This approach will certainly appeal to those employees most likely to use social media, promoting trust in the goals of the guidelines that ultimately are instituted.

It is critical not to insist that final policies are set in stone. Instead, policies should be allowed to change and evolve. The goal is to create a system of governance under which social networking is not seen as an exception, but rather as an activity that is intimately connected to your company’s overall people practices.

This kind of organizational change requires careful planning and management. Leaders must understand how social media can help their organization and should look to their employees for ideas. Equally, given the community-based nature of social media, it is important to empower employees to help lead the evolution, which will be an ongoing process. Every technological change has led to an accompanying, often slower, cultural change as companies adjust to a new way of working. In turn, the adjustment has often led to a new understanding of the meaning of work itself. In the case of social networking, these benefits are real. Only by creatively channeling its use, however, will organizations succeed in reaping those benefits for a sustained competitive advantage.