As more employers implement social-media strategies, careful consideration must be given to employee
Sales and marketing are leading the charge to advance social technology use in business given their natural desire to deepen ties with consumers. Yet other functions, including R&D and manufacturing, are also making use of social tools in different industries.
The adoption of social technologies, however, is not without its perils for companies. Most social networks allow employers to have easy access to their employees. This sometimes leads to friction over privacy.
Active collaboration on social networks also sometimes leads to inadvertent confidentiality breaches. The main areas of the firm responsible for grappling with these issues are legal and HR. Precisely because of the risks involved, legal and HR professionals have been most resistant to giving social technologies a wider role in the enterprise.
Two connected questions emerge: To what degree can companies modulate the barriers to embracing social as a force inside the firm? And, can corporate attorneys and HR executives become more than watchdogs containing security breaches and evolve into more active players in integrating social into the firm?
Accelerating company policies to integrate social technology into the firm is an increasing necessity. Social media has changed the nature of dialogue among friends, family and business partners outside the workplace.
It is a multigenerational phenomenon. Its exploitation is fundamental to many businesses. So we must anticipate that the psychological barrier between what is considered “social” and what is considered work will continue to diminish.
Therein lies the problem: Social technology is embraced by employees faster than companies have been able to adapt to its implications, positive or negative to the firm. Let’s think about the risks. From a privacy standpoint, users are often in denial as to the amount of personal information they give up once they become involved in a social network.
This not only opens them to the scrutiny of some unknown marketer, it also opens them to their employers and fellow employees to a greater or lesser degree. Collaboration, for example among researchers, can be exciting on social networks. Yet in the midst of some enthusiastic exchange, there is a heightened risk of divulging some proprietary information.
For regulated industries, healthcare and finance for example, there are a myriad of concerns related to the adverse consequences of sharing information which may be untimely, out of context or mistaken. The penalties can be severe.
These risks won’t stop continued experimentation. But it will make for an increasingly friction- filled and litigious environment, as employees and employers navigate their way. Certainly workplace challenges of social media are gathering media attention. A cursory Google search shows over 78 million entries dealing with the issue. 4 million entries relate to workplace terminations for inappropriate workplace use.
Four Steps to Implementing Social Media
Getting to a better integration of social into the life of the firm has a big organizational component. At least four ingredients seem to be essential:
1. C-level awareness: Leaders need to make this area a strategic priority. At the moment, the efforts of many companies are ad hoc and disaggregated. CEOs need a vision for what they want social to accomplish for their companies and advisors who are on top of trends to provide them with creative input.
2. Real-time knowledge: Regular surveys of the social usage habits of employees would yield a great deal of information that may actually spark new ideas for leveraging social to competitive advantage. Because social technology is being adopted from the bottom up, too often business leaders are disconnected from prevailing trends. This is a high risk situation for company leadership, especially in fast moving industries such as consumer products, finance and healthcare.
3. Tapping thought leaders and early adopters: Within any firm there are individuals who are more advanced in adopting technology and are influential to their peers. Surveys can identify these individuals, as most of the time they are not the ones leadership believes they are. Once you know who the thought drivers are, they need to be tapped. This may mean bringing these people into special-purpose teams that look at how to adapt company culture to social technologies or it may mean engaging them as active players in new product and process development. What is certain is that if senior management doesn’t know who its social thinkers are, then they are wasting a tremendous asset
4. Finally, and this is most important, the roles of legal and HR experts must change within the firm. At the moment these departments play two roles which are important but insufficient. First, they design policies which lay the ground rules for permissible social media behavior. Second, they act to discipline and contain damage when these rules are breached. These narrowly specified jobs unfortunately place these professionals in a reactive role.
Technology and usage moves rapidly—how can one expect these executives to shape policy without being embedded in the trends? Beyond placing these staffs in a knowledge silo, another threat is apparent. It relegates creative minds to the role of security; they come to be viewed by their peers as at best obstructionists and at worst a kind of thought police, with a chilling effect on innovation.
Embedding these professionals in mixed teams right at the beginning of any social project is a much healthier step. There are reciprocal advantages: They stay informed of key trends, and they help their colleagues think through, in a collaborative fashion, workplace and societal risks of new company innovations. Innovation doesn’t need to stop, but new initiatives are less likely to be derailed through legal challenges.
We are still in the midst of an ongoing evolution in how digital communications are reshaping company roles and actions. We can expect this evolution to be experimental and volatile. Many traditional roles, including legal and HR, will shift. Adaptive company cultures will recognize this, and adapt their organizations accordingly.
Andrew Goldberg serves as executive vice president of public relations firm Makovsky & Co. Inc.'s Corporate Advisors division,which counsels CEOs and other C-suite executives in restructuring, change management and M&A situations. Goldberg was previously the president of WPP-owned Pivot Red and chairman of the corporate practice at Burson-Marsteller. He earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University in international affairs, specializing in the psychology of decision-makers under stress.