Using Online Social Networks as Internal Communication Tools


Communication a la mode

It seems everywhere you go lately you are hearing about someone’s Facebook post or the most recent tweet.  And while this is not a terribly new phenomenon around the water cooler or at happy hour, it is now popping up in corporate meetings.  What used to be lambasted as a waste of company time and employee resources, online social networks are starting to be embraced as internal tools to facilitate communication.

I had heard of companies using Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, and other Online Social Networks (OSNs) as marketing and recruiting tools but their use was mainly as another external communication tool – a way to target a market that has left the newspaper and yellow pages for the internet.  New to me was mainstream companies using it internally.  I recently heard about some companies’ top executives sending out Facebook updates, tweets, and LinkedIn messages during board meetings, conferences, and strategic planning sessions.

What in many companies was once viewed as a disciplinary offense is encouraged at companies like Vail Resorts; and they are not alone.  Yum! Brands, the largest restaurant company in the world, has recently joined in.  You may not know Yum! Brands as a company name but billions worldwide have enjoyed their product brands of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers, Taco Bell, and A& W restaurants.  Mmm…Root beer floats!

Why go to Online Social Networks as a Communication Tool?

Vail Resorts, which owns and operates several ski areas (including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Heavenly, Keystone and Arapahoe Basin) as well as golf properties and other vacation destination properties around the globe, recently embraced the use of Facebook, Twitter, and Yammer (an internal version of Twitter).  Cliff Pacaro, Manager of Employment Branding & College Programs, explained that use of a social network has increased how quickly employees get information straight from the top to the bottom without any filters.  An employee who works the lifts at Beaver Creek is now privy to what business initiatives are being planned at the most senior levels.  It is flattening out the communication curve and creating an environment where line employees know just as much about the company and the industry as their bosses do…and sometimes more.  If their bosses are not following the CEO’s posts, they may get hit with a question from their employees about something that they may not know about.

At an organization like Vail, where the CEO recently amended the dress policy to casual as way to help employees feel less stressed by the economy and other work pressures, the environment is ripe for such a flattening of the organization.  It also seems fitting in the casual way the tool has been rolled out.  It is gaining momentum quickly and more and more employees have hopped on the bandwagon so they can stay in the loop.  According to Mr. Pacaro, Rob Katz is a strong believer that each employee deserves to know what is going on, regardless of their role in the company.

Yum! Brands chose online networks for a slightly different reason.  Cindy Costa, Marketing Manager for the Yum! Know-How & Innovation Center says is started as a marketing tool but the organization quickly realized how creating an organized space that transcended time zones could have greater benefits.  Yum! operates development facilities around the globe and Cindy indicated that creating a social network would enable teams in India to share information with teams at their headquarters in Louisville, KY.  With having teams on the other side of the globe, coordinating them even as virtual teams through a synchronous conference call or web chat was still logistically challenging.  By creating a space for employees to share ideas and get feedback from others around the globe who are working on new products for Yum!, the communication flows more freely from one team to the next.  Since the online communities are specific to projects and not necessarily locations, you get employees collaborating on each others projects without them ever setting foot in the same physical space.

As an added benefit, Yum! hopes to eliminate duplication of effort across teams.  Through the increased communication across the globe, each team will have a better idea of what their colleagues are working on.

Generational shifts

There is a generational component that might play into bringing OSNs to your company as well.  As the newer Generation X and Millennial generations begin to ascend the leadership ladder in the workplace, online communities are a natural addition to companies.  These two generations pioneered the online social network and grew up with the internet as a comfortable way to exchange information.  Web 2.0, a term coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2005 to describe how the (at that time, new) interactive sites allow information to be posted, shared, and commented on.  That ability is something these generations have latched on to on their own and are excited about it.  As of February of 2009 these two generations comprise 80% of registered users (Corbett, 2009).  Gen X and Millenials also account for over 78% of Twitter’s user group (Corbett, 2009).

Despite the continued feedback companies tend to receive to increase and improve communication, employees still feel out of the loop.  Much of that might be due to the traditional view of how information flows within a company and the contrasting view held by younger generations of how communication should occur.  The traditional top down model of communication mirrors your conventional branching hierarchical organizational chart.  Each person decides what gets shared with whom at the level below them, so as information starts from a certain level, it gets filtered as it trickles down.  The danger with this model can sometimes be the belief that knowledge is power – if I have more knowledge than the person below me, it helps retain my power over them.  This can be a communication model that exacerbates the feeling some employees have of not being trusted or valued.

Younger generations, especially Millenials, enter the workplace with a much more communal view of information.  While they were growing up, they were involved in all the family conversations – discussions on where to go for vacation, whether they wanted another sibling, where they wanted to go to school, etc.  As a result they expect to have as much access to information as their supervisor, which is where OSNs come in.  When the CEO posts something on Twitter, Yammer, or Facebook, everyone down to lowest paid employee has access to the information.

They are doing it anyway

Employees have always spent time browsing the internet when you are not watching.  Your company has spent millions of dollars on filtering software to keep your employees off of web sites like Facebook, YouTube, or amazon.com.  And, instead of increasing employee productivity by restricting web use, you may have actually decreased it.  According to a recent study from the University of Melbourne in Australia, 70% of employees reported engaging in “Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing” or WILB.  Of those who reported, employees who were able to “use the web for fun while at work” had a 9% HIGHER productivity rating than those who said there web use was restricted.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 134 Million people employed in the US over the age of 20. (www.bls.gov).  Facebook reported 36.4 million users over the age of 18 in the US. (www.istrategylabs.com)  If 90% of your employees were full time, and only half of the Facebook crowd are also full time employees, that would still represent over a quarter of your workforce (28%).  And online use has radically eclipsed watching TV and reading as a past time.  During a given week, the average US citizen spends 32.7 hours online, 16.4 hours watching TV and 3.9 hours reading magazines, newspapers or books.  (Dangson, 2008)  And how much of that time is sopent on a Social Networking site? TechCruch.com recently polled users how much time they spent on social networks each week and in the US, users averaged 4.2 hours per week just on Facebook! (Wauters, 2009)

So the short hand is, whether they are at work or not, workers are gravitating towards Online Social Networks.  And if the Melbourne study is correct, it would benefit us to at least allow people access to them.  The online trend has grown over the past decade by leaps and bounds and shows no sign of slowing so is it no mystery that we see it increasing in the workplace as well?

Increasing Engagement (and Profit) Through Greater Communication

Towers Perrin, a professional services firm headquarted in Connecticut, revealed in their 2007-2008 Global Employee Engagement study that just a little more than half (57%) of employees surveyed said they trusted their senior leaders.  Only 38% indicated that they felt senior leaders “communicated openly an honestly”.  Towers Perrin stated that “While leaders may have mastered the operational basics of their role, they need to do more to connect with and inspire the workforce.”(2008)  Why not connect to them in the medium they have chosen to use with everyone else in their lives?

Need a reason to pay attention to this point?  Consider other findings of that same study pointing to the financial rewards of having an engaged workforce.  The study compared companies with overall engaged workforces versus those with disengaged employees over a 12 month period.  Over the course of a year, those companies with higher engagement ranks posted operating income gain of 19.8% versus a loss of 32.7% for those with low engagement numbers. (Towers Perrin, 2008)

Employees want to be engaged in their work.  Feeling a part of the organization makes it easier for people to see how their contributions impact the greater whole, and vice-versa.  Rather than feeling like a victim to the decisions made at different levels of an organization, through OSNs employees feel able to be a part of change processes.  Communicating ideas faster can also help your organization correct problems before time and energy is spent creating a “solution” that only creates another problem.

Marketing Speak vs Real Communication

If your goal is just to make your current employees think you are great place to work, then focus your use of Online Social Networks towards people external to the organization.  Your employees already work there, they do not need to be sold anything, nor do they want to.  While using OSNs as a recruiting and marketing tool can be very effective, as an internal tool what your employees want is reality – good and bad.  They get it, they know the culture, probably better than you do so no amount of marketing will make people see the company any different, they live it.  What they will enjoy is candid information about projects, initiatives, and philosophies of management.

Even if confusion exists on a project, the best you can offer is honesty to your employees.  Talking “around” the issues on your Facebook page only make the “elephant in the room” become the “elephant on the web”.  Employees have a high BS detector when it comes to things that are going on in their own company…especially if you are espousing the wonderful progress being made on a project that they know is stalled and hitting roadblock after roadblock.  You will lose them immediately if you try to sell your company to the people who have already bought the Kool-aid.  A good rule of sales is once the customer has agreed to a purchase, stop selling.

Viral Communication

You have heard of viral video, viral emails, and viral marketing.  So what the heck is it that makes something “viral”?  Essentially the concept of a “viral” anything is how quickly it spreads and “catches” on.  Remember that silly little hamster dance email that bounced around some years back?  Well, without a lot of digging people would have no idea where is started, but they know it was forwarded to them and they forwarded it on, and so on and so on.  That is viral.  And whether you know it or not you already have viral communication going on at your organization, only you call it “gossip.”

The “rumor mill” or “water cooler chat” is exactly the type of communication you want to harness and direct via your OSN.  Trying to keep people quiet is like trying to get a 3 year old to sit down for longer than 5 minutes.  Chatting is people’s natural way of helping themselves feel more comfortable during change and uncertainty (Bridges, 1991).

Psychology tells us that when people are left without information that creates a complete picture or message, what we tend to fill the void with is negative.  This is where the layoff rumors start and all others as well.  It is a part of people’s natural self-protection instinct, just like when we see a dark cave, we never imagine there is a pot of gold in there and rush in…we fill the void with a sleeping bear that is waiting to tear us limb from limb.

The use of OSNs can start the rumors you want; things about new project ideas, strategic shifts, marketing ideas, and even possible solutions to performance gaps that are being explored.  There is a commonly held belief that if you are not 100% sure then you should not let you employees know what is going on.  This tends to lead employees to create messages than fill the voids of non-communication and typically the rumor they create is less favorable than what is actually going on.  Control the rumors by starting them yourself.

Constructing your Program

If you decide to engage in the OSN business as a tool for internal communication, start small and organically.  If you develop it as another formal communication tool, then just like the company emails you send out, your will find your way to the ignore or delete pile.  What attracts people to things like Facebook, Twitter, and other OSNs is the Social aspect of it. When you make it formal, you take away the social aspects.  It is about making it personal.  The less formality you place around it the better.  The random nature of the posting is what will keep people interested.  If you are always talking about one thing, people zone out, so mix it up.  Occasionally include things that are not business related.  I want to know that the posts are coming from a person, not a corporate zombie.

Avoid the company Facebook page for internal communications.  If you are using OSNs for marketing or recruiting, then I would say create a company page.  If you are using it for internal communication, create a personal page for people to follow.  They will follow you more than they will follow the company page; remember it is the social aspect that brings them here.  There is nothing social about a company website.   Make it about people connection first.  People follow other people, not companies.  Start small, and start personal.

Several internal tools are available for use and there are companies who can create your own internal version of an OSN.   Whether you use Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or some other custom variation, please remember this is about SOCIAL not business.  If you communicate as people rather than corporate machine to employee you will see better results.

Moving Forward

Regardless of whether your company chooses to enter this realm of communication, pay attention to the newer generation’s desire for constant feedback and information.  They grew up having parents a cell phone call away, research information a Google click from their iPhone, and automatic traffic updates on their GPS.  They are looking for information faster and unfiltered.  It’s time for you to catch up to your workforce.

This is a communication paradigm shift, not just a question of technology.  The culture is moving faster, more global, and flatter than it has ever been, and that is not changing anytime soon.  Online Social Networks are simply the technological answer to people’s desire to communicate with people around the world, faster, and without boundaries.  Shakespeare said that “brevity is the soul of wit”, and what could be more brief than 140 characters or less?

References:

O’Reilly, Tim. What is web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software.  September 30, 2005. Retrieved from  http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html

Corbett, Peter. 2009 Facebook Demographics and Statistics Report: 276% Growth in 35-54 Year Old Users. January 5, 2009. Retrieved from http://www.istrategylabs.com

Corbett, Peter. 2009 Twitter Demographics and Statistics Report. February 17, 2009. Retrieved from http://www.istrategylabs.com

Coker, Brent. Freedom to surf: workers more productive if allowed to use the internet for leisure. April 2, 2009. Press Release from University of Melbourne. Retrieved from http://uninews.unimelb.edu.au/news/5750/

The employment situation. September 2009. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Retrieved from www.bls.gov.

Dangson, Caroline.  2008 U.S. Consumer Online Behavior Survey Report: Social Networking Behaviors. May 2008.  Retrieved from http://www.idc.com.

Wauters, Robin. comScore: Russians Spend More Time On Social Networks Than The Rest Of World. July 2, 2009. Retrieved from uk.techcrunch.com.

Towers Perrin.  2007-2008 Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study. 2008. Retrieved from www.towersperrin.com.

Bridges, William.  Managing Transitions:  Making the most of change. May, 2003.  Cambridge, MA.  DeCappo Books.

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One thought on “Using Online Social Networks as Internal Communication Tools

  1. Pingback: Peak Alignment Blog: 2010 in review « Peak Alignment

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