How to avoid social media pitfalls in internal communications
From across Europe they came to Copenhagen: the communication professionals of the IABC, the International Association of Business Communicators. At the EuroComm18 conference they shared knowledge, gained new insights, and connected with colleagues. I was invited to speak about enterprise social media. My main point to the audience was that consumer social media such as Facebook demonstrate not only the possibilities but also the pitfalls of these new ways of communication.
Promise vs reality
In the early 90s the internet was full of promise to connect people across cultural and geographical boundaries. It would allow rich to speak to poor, left wingers to speak to right wingers, easterners to speak to westerners, fostering understanding and solidarity. It has not worked out that way. As we have witnessed, people instead retract into their own bubbles and cut themselves off from news and opinions from the outside world. In sociology this is called homophily: the tendency to hang out with like-minded people.
As a side note, the recent Facebook privacy scandal is an illustrative example of the power of homophily: political consultancy Cambridge Analytica profiled people on the basis of their answers in a personality test. Amazingly, only 270.000 people filled in the test, but by extrapolating the test results to all their (like-minded) Facebook friends, Cambridge Analytica managed to effectively targeted 87m people.
”The power of homophily: 270.000 mensen fill out a test and, as a result, 87 million people can be targeted by extrapolating the results to these people's (like-minded) Facebook friends.”
Parallels in the workplace
This same phenomenon is happening at work. More and more organizations are implementing social communication tools to stimulate knowledge sharing, cooperation, and engagement. But without the right strategy, there is a real risk these tools will only reinforce silos. Apart from homophily three other factors are at play here:
- Fragmentation: in many organizations different departments and teams use different tools (WhatsApp, Yammer, Slack), which are mutually incompatible.
- Overload: employees often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information coming at them, causing them to shut themselves off from information that is not directly relevant.
- Firewalls: many corporate IT systems do not allow access for external collaborators in teams.
The good news is that, within organizations at least, there are ways to avoid these pitfalls. And I told my audience at EuroComm18 that they, the corporate communicators, have an important role to play in this. I advised them to focus on three areas, neatly in line with the conference’s theme: communication, participation and technology.
The role of the corporate communicator is changing: from gatekeepers and editors they are becoming community managers. Rather than producing and publishing content this entails empowering employees to create their own, kickstarting conversations, and initiating connections on their social platform. Communicators can develop best practices of e.g. online knowledge sharing with early adopters and use these to activate others. They can also make sure new employees are introduced and activated on company social media during onboarding.
”The role of the corporate communicator is changing: from gatekeepers and editors they are becoming community managers.
But which community to manage? Organizations are changing, with more fluid teams, decentralized decision making, more external contributors, and collaboration with third parties. We at Plek say: open up, give people free reign on your social platform, bring in those external collaborators, allow your employees to share freely with the outside world. For early movers, there is even the opportunity to claim key roles in new intercompany knowledge sharing networks, thereby creating a sustainable competitive advantage.
The question is: are organizations ready for this? We did a survey last year at C-Day, the Dutch equivalent of EuroComm, which showed many are not. Only half offer mobile access to important functions and content; only two in five give access to externals; and only a third provide a true alternative to WhatsApp. What is going on?
Talking with many organizations about internal social media, I see two main blockers:
- Putting technology first, not the user. This often leads to fully compatible and secure, but hardly usable tools.
- Aiming for an all-in-one digital workplace solution, which takes years to align everybody on and big budgets to develop.
My advice to my audience of corporate communicators was first of all to do something, otherwise all their employees will start using WhatsApp or Slack. In larger organizations it seems to work best to take a step by step approach. Start by solving some pressing problems, develop best practices you can ‘sell’ to the rest of the organization, and gradually replace old systems. Try to keep it simple to ensure early successes.
Three examples from Plek implementations:
- At the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relationsinterior ministry, we are currently in the middle of a three-step rollout of Plek as a social communication platform with access for external collaborators. We started with several pilots and are moving on to the support organization. Implementing Plek for the hierarchical structure will be the last step.
- WhatsApp use was rife at KPMG due to SharePoint fatigue. We rolled out Plek with chat in a native mobile app as a social layer on SharePoint.
- At the Telegraaf Media Groep, we started with a company-wide personnel directory on mobile, later adding full social intranet content and functionalities.
"My advice to my audience of corporate communicators was first of all to do something, otherwise all their employees will start using WhatsApp or Slack."
We at Plek are constantly thinking about ways to support community managers in combating homophily and silo thinking. Three avenues we are currently working on:
- Improve onboarding, to set new people on the right path, connect them to existing employees, build rich profiles. For this we also use offline events.
- Foster idea generation: setting challenges people can respond to, engaging the wider community to give feedback and rate ideas, assembling teams to take up good ideas.
- Use AI to map connections and identify choke points, to gauge employee satisfaction, to connect people working on similar projects or themes, to suggest knowledge sources to individuals and teams
But although smart technology can help, organizations still need a good communication strategy and strong community management to make optimal use of their internal social media. That was the message I offered all those communicators to take home from a successful conference in Copenhagen. If you would like to get to know more, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call: +31 (0)20 - 369 7577.