Companies are scrambling to take advantage of the marketing and public relations opportunities that social networking offers. Who wouldn’t jump at the prospect of seeing their product or service virally transformed into an overnight sensation via Facebook or Twitter?
But many companies actually discourage their employees from developing new-world social media skills.
Not everyone is comfortable with employees using social media. Organisations are understandably filled with fear about social networking’s dark side, such as the possibility of employees' disclosing intellectual property secrets on public sites. That’s not to mention the embarrassment if employees behave dubiously online. Today, every company is one YouTube video, Tweet, or Facebook status update away from a public misstep.
So how do sceptical leaders deal with the meteoric rise in popularity of social media? Some companies do their best to stifle workers from freely exchanging ideas and opinions on the Internet. There are organizations that have simply ignored the trend as well as their employees’ participation. Others have banned their workers from participating outright, or during work hours. Then there are those companies who have installed monitoring software that scans the online terrain for any relevant employee post.
But even as corporate leaders do their best to protect their companies, they understand that social networking is quickly becoming the way their employees collaborate and a means to attract new business. That's where the customers are. And like it or not, social media is a powerful tool for recruiting and retaining the next generation of workers who are already using these tools 24/7.
Moreover, companies are beginning to realise it is important to have employees broadcast thoughts and ideas that reflect the values of their employer. So how does a leader embrace the opportunities that social networking offers -- without risking damage to the organisation's brand?
Many employers, including my own, IBM, realised long ago that employees were blogging during their downtime. Stopping this revolution would be akin to attempting to push the ocean. Employees post their employer affiliations on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites the way people used to keep up with one another on the telephone.
So it makes sense to encourage employees to embrace these new tools -- as long as you provide parameters so people know what is appropriate and what is not. That’s why drafting a set of social computing guidelines is crucial to putting employees on a productive path to engaging in social media.
While such guidelines may differ in their specifics, it is important to:
- Urge employees to be transparent about their identities and be open about who they are, especially when writing about work-related topics.
- Emphasise that employees are personally responsible for every word they publish.
- Instruct employees to avoid controversial topics that aren’t related to their companies or their own roles within them.
- Remind employees that they are building a permanent social reputation on the Internet -- a place where there is no such thing as an eraser.
- Clarify for employees the fact that their virtual identities are becoming as important as -- an inseparable from -- their real-world ones.
In many ways, the world of social networking is still a frontier/ But the more leaders are proactive about dealing with the issue and helping employees, the more comfortable they can feel. History helps here, too. It wasn’t long ago, after all, that the prospect of a computer on every employees’ desk gave corporate executives nightmares. Eventually, though, social norms and parameters — as well as laws — grew up around the PC to make it a safe and benign tool for business use. The world adjusted and flourished by using PCs.
So too it will be with social networking. The only question is whether your company will be at the forefront of this trend — or whether it will fall behind.
Karen Tipping is the organisational change consultant and smarter work subject matter expert at IBM Australia.
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