Loosen Up on Employee Use of Social Media at Work

I have worked with several corporations whose fear of losing control of all communications, let alone security, has prompted them to shut down access of all social media from within the company. I can understand that. If I don’t understand something, my first inclination is to stop ‘it’ until I can make some sort of sense out of it. The question is whether or not leadership teams are just stopping it or trying to make sense of it.

While Gartner came out this fall and flat out told IT authorities that “banning access to social media is futile”, the real value is understanding how foundational social networking is to our success at work, and how social media is a critical extension of that.

“While a job may be regarded as an economic transaction, the human brain thinks of the workplace as a social system,” said Carol Rozwell (shown), a VP at Gartner. That’s because organizations ARE SOCIAL SYSTEMS. Not only will employees find a way around social media barriers at work, the reactions to such barriers could lead to an opposite and equal reaction.

The fact is that we want our people communicating. We want them active within both personal and work circles, and frankly, we hope there is sufficient overlap in both of those circles to give our people balanced living while at the same time continuing to build a positive brand for the organization (building positive perception, contributing to corporate and product success, increasing talent pipelines, etc.).

Instead of banning social media in the workplace, find someone on the leadership team with social media vision and make them the champion. If you don’t have one of those, then install one, because society is not going to do a social media u-turn and abandon it. Teach employee groups how to use it, when and where to use it, and how to integrate it into work processes. Give them encouragement and parameters to help them grow your brand, champion a winning culture and harness social media to grow the enterprise. Be transparent about your fears and passionate with your vision.

We could easily see in the next few years that there are dramatic financial and people results between organizations that leverage social media among employees and those that do not. Or we may not. Either way, social media is not going away, and performance will be far better for those leadership teams that figure out how to harness its power and enable their organization.

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Creating a Social Media Strategy: Putting the Cart Before the Horse.

Don't rush into social media just because everyone else is.  Take the time to plan it out and be deliberate.

Don't rush into social media just because everyone else is. Take the time to plan it out and be deliberate.

Over the past couple of years, I have been an enthusiastic follower of social media communications in organizations.  As the wave of individuals have turned to popular applications and technologies to connect individuals and groups, businesses are finding the need to create new roles of tweeters, bloggers, posters and feeders, usually in an attempt to merely follow the competition.  But which of the competition really knows what they are doing? 

Social Media as a “Me-too” Strategy

I’m a lover of strategy, and as I search for social media strategies others are using, I see it following the likes of social media adoption: an all too often knee-jerk reaction to a developing eco-sphere of burgeoning online social activity, rather than a well-developed appendix to a communications strategy.  Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great to develop a social media strategy, but there is a danger here in the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ it is formed: Any strategy for the sake of strategy, often becomes disparate from organizational purpose and sub-optimizes the whole.  Social media, and any strategy for that matter, simply needs to align with the larger purpose and vision of the organization / individual.  And, social media, having its own strategy, may be putting the cart before the horse.

A Purpose-driven Approach to Social Media Strategy

Most organizations need to back-up and first begin with the following:

 1.) The Relationships you’re building with Stakeholders. What are those relationships now and what do they need to become? Since really all social activities (and all organizations are social structures) begin and end with relationships, its critical to take stock in and inventory relationship gaps within and without the organization.  Most companies that I have been in (a fair amount) don’t even formally acknowledge who their key stakeholders are in the first place.  Take the leadership team through the process of working out and articulating these relationships, identifying their current state and their desired state.  Now you have something to work with.

2.) What is the Best Way to Build those relationships?  This question gives everyone a guideline and handrail to hold to and keep us directed as we work through the rest of the social media strategy process. Is it through insincerity?  Is it by being guarded and defensive?  Is it through telling too much or too little? Once you’ve identified the key relationships, simply have a discussion as a team about the best way to strengthen them.  Use experience from your own life about how your relationship was strengthened with organizations you patronize. Not every relationship needs to be at the same level, but discussing what principles impact the development of those relationships will put everyone on the same philosophical page about relationship building. 

3.) What Information, Exchanges, Experiences and Conversations need to take place in order for those relationships to foster? This is where you begin to design the messages or content from a high level.  Don’t wait for the moment to come later to have this discussion – get it out there on paper right now.  Let everyone look at it.  This will begin to tell you about your side of the relationship and how you can step up to the plate as individuals and as an organization.

  4.) How are we going to communicate with them to Best Facilitate it all? As you can tell, we haven’t even talked about social media at this point. This last question leaves us with the need to get clear on our communications strategy and planning ; social media, now that’s merely a channel for socializing your messages, a means for enabling your communications plan to be to actually communicate, from sending messages to receiving feedback.

Once you have a communications strategy, articulated and aligned, then you have the groundwork for clearly seeing the opportunities that social media can play in communication with your various stakeholder groups.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, what about the cool stuff – the facebook, twitter, digg, YouTube?” 

Again, don’t get caught up in the channels (or ‘means’) that the relationships (or ‘ends’) utilize.  Plan those channels just as you would any other. There is no quicker way to kill your brand than to whip out a social media strategy, open all channels of online social networking, and then find you’ve created a monster. Communications in web-based, open social circles can be like a prairie fire: a small spark can quickly rage uncontrolled, traveling faster than you can mobilize resources to contain it.  You put a message out there with one intent, and it can be quickly picked up and perceived as another, blown across a vast area, too fast for you to control it.  That said, don’t be afraid – be bold, be willing to be transparent and foster visionary leadership.

New to twitter? Good, now you know enough to kill yourself.

A long while back, my good friend took a class and earned his diving (SCUBA) certification. In his proud moment of achievement, his dad, an experienced diver, said to him, “Good. Now you know enough to kill yourself.” 

His dad knew that getting into the water and using technology to breathe in it did not make you a competent diver.  In fact, he knew that the false sense of security that most beginning divers have is what really ends up putting them in harm’s way.  I think this is where I throw the same advice for those of us hopping on Twitter (myself included).

“But wait”, you say, “What’s the danger?”  Simply put, it’s the same risk you take on all online, social media activities: reputation and brand management.  “Well, I don’t know, it doesn’t look so bad.  All I do is tell people what I’m doing, right?  Or Maybe I think of clever, witty things to say and that’s all I need, right?” Yeah, and then all your friends think you’re even weirder than before, or worse, you damage the image of your company.

Don’t forget that when you’re blogging, tweeting, commenting or rating, you are still communicating and sending a message out to the world.  Often, in this new era of burst communication and rapid response, we’ve lowered our standards of thinking through our communications to evaluate how they might be received or what other messages we may be unintentionally sending.

If you are tweeting, chirping, burping or blogging, consider the following:

If you are an Organization: You are either well-known, or you are not.  If you are well-known, you either rise to the expectations of your audience / stakeholders, or immediately tank in their perceptions and the entire effort ends up wallowing in a reputation recovery campaign.  If you are an unknown organization (and this applies just as much to a known organization), you are potentially creating a new voice and brand extension by tweeting, and that brand best be intentional and deliberate.  Your tweets and followers will not be many at first, and quite honestly, it’s really not how many followers you have, it’s how many readers you have.  Over time, if your value prop on Twitter is planned and managed as well as your value prop of anything else in your organization, then you will be able to leverage a good following in order to meet stakeholder needs.  Be just as careful launching on Twitter as you should with any other campaign.

If you are an individual:  You’re not expected to have a ton of value on Twitter, unless you’re famous.  Let’s face it, nobody is waiting to pay for text alerts or to log on and see what ‘John or Sally Doe’ has to say. You’re an unknown entity.  You are welcome to experiment, try it out and write boring stuff.  Of course, if you are a celeb, then telling people what you had for breakfast will have them on the edge of their wanna-be seats, waiting for more. Over time, you may want to figure out how Twitter fits into your communication needs and then use it for that purpose, rather than slobber all over the twittersphere for the rest of us to sort through. But if you are known, a name, a brand, then you have some expectations to live up to.  You don’t meet them, the egg – it’s on your face.

In short, now that you are set-up with an account and have sent a few tweets, you know enough to put your brand, image, product, service, personal name out there in an uncontrolled, unmediated environment.  Reputation will be formed, and not always as intentionally as you would like.  But if you at least have a clear objective or purpose for using Twitter, then it will more likely meet your needs, and hopefully the needs of others, and bring you and your followers some value.

Chirp, chirp.