Social Media: Prelude To … The Good Old Ways?

I just read Peter Cappelli’s post at Human Resource Executive Online, The Promise and Limitations of Social Media. I have to respectfully disagree with the objections raised and with the conclusion.

Cappelli lists the advantages of social media at and for work, and then quickly counters them:

  • The lawyers will be all over every mistake by employees – “throwing up restrictions and imposing limits on the use of social media.” He mentions the, by now, old saw of risk, the inadvertent disclosure of proprietary information via social media. He fails to mention effective social media usage policies such as those at IBM and Oracle, which set clear guidelines for employees using social media. There are dozens of organizations with social media policies that, apparently, work well enough. Also, lawyers already make use of social media themselves.

  • Cappelli dismisses the idea that social media are free. I agree here: they are not free because use means time and time is a cost. My response is: social media enable interactions that might never take place without them, may very well solve problems or get questions answered faster than any other means, and create enhanced engagement by improving employee relationships, particularly in global organizations. I’ve written about the USAF Knowledge Now platform’s ability to save time by enabling users to find the exact answer to a specific question and avoid recreating processes that have already been created. IBM’s platform Fringe serves, in part, as an expertise locator, and other organizations have similar platforms.
  • Cappelli says it’s likely that employees will get too much information in answer to a question, making it difficult to make the right choice among solutions. To cite the Knowledge Now example again, when searching the KN database for information or advice, the top results that show up are those that have been validated through a rigorous, annual process. Essentially, the best advice shows up first. Validation is time-consuming, but the back-end results seem to make it worthwhile. There is no reason the same process cannot be applied to any internal social media platform. Clearly, reaching out to an outside network means responses are not going to be organized or validated, but I expect most employees are able to make decisions about which advice to follow after they have it if they trust the people providing it; after all, they knew too little before asked the question, so knowing more has to be better. Also, I should point out that there are good tools available now – collaborative filtering, rating systems, and trust networks that filter based on people whose opinions you value – that simplify the identification of the best answers to questions.
  • Finally, Cappelli implies that the change in organizational culture required – “to make it work demands a very high level of trust and employee commitment” – is too much. His first example of why: employees may try to enrich themselves “at company expense” using social media. I would say that this has happened long before social media. I’d also say that, in my view, trust should already be part of the organizational culture? Is social media really a threat to trust, or is social media the tool that reveals how little trust really exists?

Cappelli concludes: “My guess is that we will gradually go back to something not that far from where we are now: A few jobs such as those in recruiting and sales where the focus has always been on outside relationships will use social media extensively. Other employees will occasionally ask their social network for help with work problems but will be wary of abusing outsiders.”

Some employers ban social media use, fearing the things Cappelli mentions and more. My question is: How engaged are their employees who use social media daily in their personal lives likely to be in an organization that says, “We don’t trust you and we don’t trust your judgment, common sense, and intelligence”? There is ample evidence of the power, efficacy, utility, and bottom-line results that greater employee engagement produces. My personal experience with social media is that it tends to draw employees closer to the company rather than away from it.

I know that employees’ work-time use of external social media sites and applications for non-work purposes often represents lost productivity; in my opinion, that behavior is better dealt with via policies, clearly communicated expectations, and trust than prohibition or banning or real-time monitoring of employees’ social media use.

I am not so naive to believe there is not social media abuse going on in companies. However, I don’t see a return to the good old ways – ever – because, for all the potential risks, the benefits to employees, customers, and others of the relationships formed and leveraged through social media outweigh those risks. It may take training and some trial-and-error experiences, but employees are wise enough to figure it out. That’s why you hired them.