Social media has already transformed the way we communicate, and it is now beginning to change the way we work. Enterprise social networks, such as Yammer and Chatter, have created an internal business role for social media, influencing how organisations interact, and how they share and develop ideas. These tools can be instrumental in harnessing innovation, streamlining internal communications and, perhaps most intriguingly, helping bosses spot talented employees.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the professional body for HR and people development, has looked at how enterprise social networks have begun to shift the working practices of a range of retail, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) and service sector businesses. We have found that this relatively new means of communication provides important opportunities for workers.
Enabling employees to use social media can bring various distinct benefits. It can make organisations more agile, as workers use social networks to quickly obtain practical help from colleagues or get their views and advice on anything from sales enquiries, to technology support, or even a new marketing idea.
The visibility, speed and permanence of comments made on social media, and the resulting replies on the discussion thread, can give employees a more tangible sense that their experience and knowledge are valued. In contrast to putting forward ideas via more traditional suggestion schemes or staff surveys, employees using enterprise social networks can quickly see how their ideas land with colleagues, and use their responses to further develop and hone them.
There is a clear incentive in this for individual employees. While workers who overuse enterprise social networks risk being seen as over-zealous, those who are selective can raise their own profile. Gaining a reputation as someone who posts useful insights and suggestions buys credibility for the individual, allows them to take the kudos, and raises their profile, particularly in a siloed organisation.
Contrary to how social media is often portrayed, using these networks is not just a narcissistic exercise in self-promotion – it delivers benefits for the organisation as a whole. Social media offers great potential for collaboration, through allowing colleagues to discuss a business process or to propose and refine ideas. Also, interactions on enterprise social networks can be used by human resources or talent specialists to identify potential leaders. They can help spot employees who are enthusiastic and creative, who develop solutions and ask the pertinent questions that drive important change.
Enterprise social networks have interesting implications for business hierarchy, in the sense that they encourage what has been called distributed leadership. Enterprise social networks might drive a shift towards a more “democratic” form of leadership. Rather than seeing leadership as the preserve of senior managers, social networks encourage people to see leadership as a role that potentially anyone can step into, provided their knowledge and experience is relevant.
This is not the prevailing leadership style in most organisations – and in some contexts it simply may not be appropriate. However, it is naturally motivating and engaging for employees and can harness insight and intelligence that otherwise remains hidden. In an increasingly volatile and complex world, these are factors large businesses need to consider to remain agile and competitive. Enterprise social networks can help by enabling organisations to keep ideas flowing, while encouraging tomorrow’s leaders to step up.
Jonny Gifford is research adviser at the CIPD and author of the report Putting Social Media to Work.