Social media has completely changed the way we communicate in our personal lives, with the younger generation much more likely to post or tweet than pick up the phone. Having rapidly eclipsed many of its older cousins, you can be sure if there is a consumer conversation worth listening to it’ll be appearing on a social network. And while much attention is paid to engaging with the buzz on the outside of an organisation, far fewer businesses seem to consider shifting their focus on to conversations happening within their own four walls.
Making the switch over to use social media for your internal communications may seem a big move but there certainly isn’t a lack of precedent. Luis Suarez, knowledge manager, community builder and social software evangelist for the multinational tech giant IBM, famously swore off using email over five years ago and has been a staunch advocate of finding more practical alternatives – the primary method being social media. The recent 2013 Change and Communication ROI Survey by global professional services firm Towers Watson revealed that 56% of medium-sized and blue chip enterprises across North America, Europe and Asia use social media tools as a part of their internal communication initiatives.
“I think it’s a ground swell; it’s organic,” comments Nicola Cull, director at Tower Watson. First of all, the trend is influenced by increasing feelings that email may no longer be fit for purpose. Cull recalls a conversation with a client who had been proactively seeking new communications solutions. They told her that email was no longer practical for what they were hoping to achieve – they needed a solution that was able to engage staff. “It’s more a case of drawing like-minded people together,” she says. “That’s easier to do with a social media type of approach than it is with traditional email where you have to create a distribution list.”
In part this is just a natural evolution; as technology has developed, the way we communicate in the workplace has gradually shifted. “It used to be that everybody was picking up a telephone,” says Richard May, national sales director of social media monitoring and analysis firm Spotter. “Email revolutionised that. And when it went mobile, that expanded it even further; you could answer anywhere you were.” In light of this, making use of social media to communicate between staff seems like an inevitable step for enterprises, especially taking into account the changing way we’re communicating in our personal lives.
This is another important driver in changing attitudes toward social media’s role in the workplace. As increasing numbers of people find that social networking is the tool they are most comfortable with for communicating at home, it becomes increasingly likely that employees will want that same flexibility in the office. “People are much more comfortable with that kind of approach to sharing information, sharing what they’ve learned and even sharing pictures and interests as well,” comments Cull. “It’s becoming the norm.”
However, for most businesses, the jury is still out when it comes to social media. According to Towers Watson’s research, despite the relatively high numbers of businesses making some use of social networking tools, just 29% of the companies using them felt they were effective.
One reason that organisations may be finding it difficult to make effective use of the tools on offer is a slightly confused picture of what solutions are most suitable for their requirements. Cull explains: “It’s very random why a company would go with one tool as opposed to another so I don’t necessarily think it’s that much of a conscious decision.”
May agrees that it can be difficult to ascertain which networks are going to be best to support the needs of the enterprise. “What type of social media systems are companies choosing to use in order to encourage their staff to communicate?” he asks. Companies may be wary of using a tool like Facebook that might be seen as being a bit too social but other solutions may come with their own attendant issues. “If it’s an open platform like Twitter, that actually means their competitors can be listening in and finding probably quite a lot of corporate intelligence from that.”
However, the reason why some SMEs may be unsure just how effective their social media strategies are might also just be down to how they’re approaching them. According to the Towers Watson findings, of the 40% of companies that felt social media was cost-effective, the majority had only engaged in a sole trial strategy. “Companies are putting their toe in the water,” says Cull. “We found that they’re doing it in a sort of ‘let’s try it out’ way with pretty much no measurement of it.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, May also feels analytics and metrics aren’t only useful for keeping abreast of customer conversations. “It’s interesting for a company to be able to gain intelligence from conversations on both sides,” he says. Not only can analytics of internal social media act as a useful barometer of feeling within a company but it also opens up access to new ideas and potential innovations that may be sparked by the data generated. May explains: “That very well could be the next level that we start seeing: companies that are on the forefront of monitoring and analysing data for consumer insights being able to incorporate that alongside their internal data.”
While we’re still a little way off social media being the norm for internal communications, it does seem like the change is inevitable as email loses currency among the general populace. However, whether a company be a diminutive micro-enterprise or a multinational behemoth, the important thing is to establish a clear and trackable strategy before diving right in.