Top 3 reasons why you should encourage social networking at workplace

Yesterday, I had the wonderful opportunity to be invited to a CEO Roundtable breakfast meeting organized by EMC at IIM Bangalore. The topic of discussion was how relevant is social networking for organizations, and what are some of the organizations doing about it. The session was led by Jack Mollen, EMC’s EVP for Human Resources. It was nice to learn how large organizations like EMC were leveraging the power of social networking. He informed that EMC with some 45,000 employees has some 20,000 virtual communities ! Wow, that must be a cool way to get all people connected from any place within the company to any other place. Partha from Mindtree highly recommended reading about EMC’s social networking platform, and also informed that they have been experimenting with social networks for the last seven years now.

I shared some of my personal views on how social networking could be useful in the context of organizations, and here are My Top 3 reasons:

1. Dismantle hierarchy and improve employee participation

Since the times of Frederick Winslow Taylor‘s Scientific Management, each (well, most) successive generation has tried to bring ‘workers’ closer to ‘management’ and improved the worker participation in management and decision-making. Today’s workers are definitely smarter, a lot smarter, than yesterday’s management, and hence there should be no good reason to limit their contributions. An increased worker involvement brings fresh ideas, that might be often overlooked by a group of people where there is assymetric participation from the organization. It also brings openness and transparency into the discussion prior to a decision being made – something that is more important, IMHO, than the very decision itself. Finally, there is always an element of better buy-in with key opinion leaders being part of such employee participation done in open.

Now imagine, there was a company-wide Twitter or Facebook where anyone could send ideas or thoughts to just about anyone, including the CEO directly. Most companies claim that they promote such open communication (and probably do that as well), but try doing that in a non-trivial-sized company setup in multiple locations on a sustainable basis (not for a one-off case), and you can quickly appreciate the challenges, both technological and organizational. A modern social networking tool can really help dismantle such invisible yet firm boundaries and pulverize the hierarchies into a really flat world! This is a real mesh network where the very ability to reach out to anyone is far more important and liberating than the actual need or motivation to do so, and notwithstanding the occasional noise that will inevitably be part of such open channels of communications, the advantages far outweigh the distractions.

2. Multiple Trust Networks lead to higher employee engagement

Most of us tend to overlook the fact that people come to organizations not just to work but to also be part of a social network. This is a fundamental human need – to be part of the group, to be liked, to be treated respectfully – that attracts people to a given workplace or a network and stay loyal to it. We have always had such social networks at workplace – well, at least at good workplaces (and I would argue that such social networks have also existed at bad workplaces but for a different but perhaps right reasons :)) and with or without technology, they served the teams and individuals well. They were like the secret sauce to getting people from different walks of life to come together, sink their individual diffrences or preferences, and work for a common purpose. Today’s social networks are not a far cry from the earlier ones, just the medium has shifted to tech-savvy and allows a real-time, 24/7 medium that can be used for even better results. The fact that still hasn’t changed is that organizations that promote social networking at workplace are creating multiple touchpoints for their employees to stay connected at workplace.

I have long believed that if there is only one single reason for some to join a company (be it salary, or role, or company name, or location, or anything else), there is a very high risk in losing that employee because invariably that single source of motivation will become single point of failure. A far better approach would be to create multiple reasons for someone to join (and stay connected to) a company so that even if one of those factors goes down, as it invariably will, other factors will hold the employee from slipping down the abyss of disillusionment and eventual disengagement. So, things like Chess Club (what is there are just 3 members in it), or Nature Club (so what if the only thing they do is watch Discovery Channel together), Daredevils (the bikers gang !), etc. are there for a purpose – don’t frown on them as unproductive distractions that lower people’s productivity. On the contrary, they serve purposes that existing mechanism simply can’t, and make your job easier 🙂

3. Open discussions about company leads to clarification of values and stronger ethics

The strength of an organizational culture can be quite accurately known by how much public scrutiny and open debate it can survive, and what tolerance does the ‘management’ have for how much dirty linen can be washed in public. To begin with, if an important company issue is treated as a non-event by the employees, that could tell a lot about the workplace culture. On the other hand, if there are passionate groups lobbying hard or raising some fundamental questions, that could also mean a lot about the workplace. Normally, a company might not want to open up its discussion forum to a larger audience fearing either the situation might go out of control, or they might never reach a consensus. I think these are well-founded fears that will go away, slowly I must add, once you start and stay focused on your goals. If you trust that your employees are adult humans who are they to work for the company and the society, and you believe that as a company, you stand by your people, then I think there is nothing to worry about. Just dismantle all prejudices, and open up the public debate to large employee forum. Whatever the reaction of people, it will only indicate the culture of the organization – isn’t that a great reason to start it now ?

These would be my Top 3 reasons why you should actively promote social networking within your organization. I realize it is easier said than done, but hey, that could be said for anything worthwhile in life or business.

What are your Top 3 reasons ?

8 thoughts on “Top 3 reasons why you should encourage social networking at workplace

  1. JoeOfarrel

    As the founder of facebook put it: social networking media isn’t about creating new networks: its about “elegantly organizing” existing real life networks. I wish more people would apply that.

  2. TV Post author

    @Dushyant: I am not sure how they do it, but it surely must be a humongous task! Also, I think based on 80/20 principle, only a few dozens of them must be really busy and worth following. Rest must be pure hobby-based group that might only be helping like-minded people connect with each other.

    But, here is my line of thought: first of all, they might not want to really scan, sniff, monitor or mine any of the groups. The idea is really not to create informal channels and then spy on them. I think they must have mechanism to check the wind direction by scanning key words or hashtags, or just listening to the messages and see the intensity of passion (which could reflect how much people care about those things). I think just like in twitter or in facebook, there is nothing really anonymous, and it is always possible to find the originator of a good idea. Of course, a serious flip side could be someone setting-off a bad conversation, but I guess if the general climate is good, such wild fires will get controlled by themselves, and if the general environment is also negative, then the fires will amplify – which is again a good news, because that’s what we want to know (not the people involved, but what are the burning issues). I know it sounds like a perfect world, but I am sure if intent is good, such tools can help create an even better environment of trust.

  3. Dushyant

    Hi TV,
    Assuming these are company owned and provided social network platforms:
    1) How do you mine all the information available at such forums to find those relevant to the decision being made, especially with 20,000 groups running round.
    2)How do you protect the privacy/anonymity of the individual/group so that a witch hunt is not started.Contrary to the same how do you assign credit for the contribution made to the decision.

  4. TV Post author

    @Ravi: I agree that it takes lots of courage and a very big heart to kick-off such irreversible actions that will dilute the ‘power’ of a top executive or the leadership and could make most people extremely worried about their own self-worth and job security, etc. I hope such people realize that it is better to, in the words of Jack Welch, “Change, before you have to” lest their best people desert them for better workplaces.

    @Sundar: thanks for sharing your thoughts on the ‘vitality’ aspect. I haven’t read the article you refer, but will grab a copy ASAP. I also agree there could be several ‘negative’ fallouts such as over-information – but I guess we all will favor that anyday to under-information, or living in isolation, or working in the dark. Perhaps the pendulum will eventually settle down in-between and every organization will find the right balance on how much to share.

  5. Sundar Ramakrishnan

    In the June 2007 HBR, Douglas Ready and Jay Conger wrote in “Make Your Company a Talent Factory” that combining functionality and vitality is essential to make organizations effective talent factories. Functionality, as they defined it, translates to establishing rigorous talent processes such that they align with strategic and cultural objectives. Vitality, they argued, demanded emotional commitment, engagement and accountability.

    As our organizations grow large, the passion and cultural norms set by the leader is lost in translation as it has to penetrate many layers of management. Social networks allow for a great medium to reach out directly to the workforce, provide them a forum to debate issues, help the processes of evolving a organizational ethos to be a collective/participative effort rather than a diktat from the corner office (which never works anyway!). So in a sense, the 3 points alluded to in the article are items I completely subscribe to.

    Another strong benefit of social networks is to provide an easy-to-access forum for disparate functions (and disparate geographies) of an organization to exchange notes in real time and help evolve strategies. My products have greatly benefited because there’s a single channel on which product engineering, product marketing, solution architects from the customer services organization, customer support engineers from technical support, account managers from various sales theaters, etc., are able to debate an issue, weigh pros and cons and drive product development strategies. Quick decisions with everyone on board enables quick delivery.

    There’s one negative fall-out too that requires careful management. One of information overload. As with every new paradigm or technology, evolving a system leading to good balance is crucial for the new paradigm/technology to make a meaningful difference.

  6. ravi

    I guess it would work only in professionally run organisations.In proprietary or government run organisations, the CEO is so obsessed with the power he posssesses that no matter if he makes a blunder, would seek ideas only to defend his position leave alone admit he made a mistake.Social networks are viewed as gossip sessions for them.They consider themselves ” unshakeable”

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