Companies can use social media effectively to generate and spread ideas, to collaborate and communicate in real-time across the organization.
In a world where the death of a butterfly in Mexico and rise of forest fires in Australia are connected, where opposing calamities like droughts and floods are the result of one cause, does it make sense to keep people from talking to one another?
Yet this is what the corporate sector has done in the past decade: blocked access to websites, particularly those offering free email and certainly those encouraging social networking. Years ago, the logic may have made sense—especially if employees, instead of concentrating on their jobs, decided to check their personal emails or chatted with friends online, or got mesmerized by a cute baby on YouTube whose laughter was infectious.
Digressions such as these are to be expected in the initial excitement of what new technologies were offering individuals cooped up all day in their cubicles. But, huge lessons have been learned since. Instead of banning employees from accessing websites such as Facebook and Twitter for fear of productivity loss, it's time managers recognized their power and began using them as tools to actually increase productivity.
The Connected Office
Let's face it: people like to be connected. Being employees or workers doesn't change that fact. Why not build corporate structures to imitate social structures, at least on an online platform to begin with? An internal social networking platform, built without hierarchies and across the entire organization, will lead to collaboration and discussion of ideas that can—at the least—make the company a better workplace.
In a large organization with thousands of employees, this could become clunky if not spread out like branches on a tree. Each individual should be free to join groups of their choice. In general, people should be free to discuss the projects they are working on, ask for ideas to improve products or services, post pictures of award ceremonies, have access to one another's presentations. While there's likely to be chaos in the beginning, I'm convinced such a network will fall into a pattern unique to itself.
Choose your Model
There are plenty of models in the public domain to choose from as templates—and all of them are successful in their own way. You could opt for the more sober Linkedin model or go the younger Facebook route. Smaller companies that don't want to invest in their very own network could possibly start out by creating an identity on available public platforms. While social media is already being used very aggressively to reach out to potential customers, the time is ripe to use it for internal communications as well.
The platform could be used for a range of issues, from attaining insight into simple things such as what food is the most popular at the cafeteria to actually raising the productivity of highly paid and highly skilled workers. Innovative ideas and solutions can, after all, come from any quarter within the organization. While technology companies will probably be the first off the block in using these technologies, there's no reason why automotive giants, hospitals, pharma companies or hotel chains can't benefit from this social revolution.
Tap Unseen Knowledge
Create expert groups within the network so that those tricky questions will result in the best answers. Cross-referencing could also help in unexpected ways. For instance, the enterprise application expert who specializes in the healthcare domain might be able to tell you which hospital has the best facilities for treating certain types of cancer. An intern passionate about the environment may be able to suggest ways in which the organization can better utilize its resources. The possibilities are endless.
To be sure, there are drawbacks to a system that allows free speech and free access to information. The fear of ideas getting stolen or leaked to outsiders is always present; but remember that this can happen offline too. There is scope for verbal abuse and angry exchange of words on the public domain. Then there are the perennial naysayers, people who might criticize every new thought or idea someone puts out. The solution is to lay down simple rules of etiquette for everyone to follow. Trust your employees to be open with their communications, and accept criticism if it comes your way.
Outsource the Monitor
An external partner can easily take up the task of monitoring discussions or steering them to generate ideas. Outsourced communications is already well-established and social media can be added on. Such a partner could also undertake data analysis, track trends, conduct surveys and in general be the go-to guys for spreading news and ideas. An accomplished outsourcing partner will also be able to help with sifting through the barrage of innovative ideas that otherwise get buried in emails. Those that sound like promising business opportunities or solutions could be posted and "likes" and comments invited. It would be the job of the service provider to accurately read the popularity meter of a given idea. Security concerns can be outsourced to the same partner as well.
Employees resent something they see as coming from "above." Even social media, if viewed as a task, will lose its fizz. Choose your outsourced partner to be one that knows how to keep up the excitement, who will be able to get people to comment on the new software-testing tool with as much zeal as they might vote out that recently-introduced tofu-and-broccoli pizza.
Start your own social revolution.