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January 30, 2012 / Mervyn Dinnen

The Good, The Bad and The Cautious

Conference season is in full swing. In recent weeks I’ve attended four recruitment and HR conferences at which – surprise surprise – one of the burning topics was yet again social media.

Clearly it’s a subject that won’t go away – nor should it – but I can certainly detect a shift in attitudes with companies showing a distinct interest, even keenness, to embrace the opportunities.

Most heart-warmingly it was at Recruitment International’s seminar for SME recruitment agencies that I noticed a big shift. I delivered the session ‘The Key to Social Media’ which I started with the question ‘how many companies here have a twitter account?’ to find that over half did! Not only that, but they wanted to learn how to use them properly and get more from them!

I won’t repeat my session here. Suffice to say that leading them through the industry’s communication journey of phone and rolodex, to fax, then computer, e-mail, mobile and now social media highlighted that it’s an evolution not a revolution and companies will adapt much as they have done previously.

This approach helps to focus on the conversation not the medium. On participation, openness, conversation, community and the benefits of connectedness… and the rules of engagement as opposed to the fear of the unknown.

After all, with our previously preferred communication tools now seen as the biggest distractions in the workplace, and new trainees much more adept at communicating through social channels and messaging as opposed to the traditional land-line phone, this is a shift we may all have to accommodate sooner rather than later.

However it’s not all optimism and a sense of adventure at a conference now…there’s the ubiquitous presentation from a law firm to sit through. And don’t they see things differently!

We hear of benefits and opportunities from companies, then of problems and risks from the lawyers.

First we listen to positive outcomes from setting out guidelines and letting employees get involved, then we get told to have policies and limit, even outlaw, usage.

I have sat through examples from companies as diverse as Boots, ITV, Unilever and Ivensys of how social media has delivered positive recruitment outcomes – and then watched the lawyers talk about their 2 cases. They only seem to have 2 – Hays (now 3 years old) and Flexman (still ongoing, and facts as yet unclear).

Did lawyers ever give presentations about the dangers to business of the phone? Fax machine? Using mobiles?

And lawyers also always now seem to quote Neil Morrison! Since having some of his quotes published in HR magazines he seems to have become the lawyers’ poster boy for a trusting, laissez faire approach to tweeting in the work place. And they don’t agree with him! Presentations usually feature his quote “I don’t think you should have a social media policy – what you are saying is ‘we don’t trust you’” followed by reasons why you should have a policy!

A lot of this smacks of old business protectionism to me. I’ve sat through many scaremongering sections about keeping clients and contacts, the old ‘restraint of trade’ clause being replaced by the new ‘we own your LinkedIn contacts’ one.

But business is changing. Clients are savvier. If you’re an agency recruiter and your client contacts come from a PSL, or contractual arrangement, then they will clearly remain where they are – the firm has the contract. Where there is no such arrangement though, the firm can’t guarantee they will keep the business. They can try and stop you speaking to contacts but can’t guarantee that, if successful, those contacts will continue to give them business.

It may be that business finds its own way of embracing social in this area. Last year IBM hosted a Social Jam – a 72 hour online conversation, drawing on 2700 participants from around the world, exploring key issues around a social business strategy. I will blog more about this in a future post, but there’s one very relevant finding that I’d like to share:

“HR needs to embrace the fact that employees have their own personal brands that exist both inside and outside the business and that it does not own these brands but merely “rents” them while employees are at work. Personal brands need to be measured and rewarded based on how they help your company throughout the social network. As employees transition and become alumni of an organization, it becomes even more important that HR maintains relationships with its alumni network. Social tools can help provide a strong, dynamic way to keep the alumni network active and useful, enabling the organization to keep an invaluable source of knowledge, mentoring and connections.

In order to take full advantage of the capabilities, HR must work with leadership to expand and instill the use of social technologies in practical and significant ways—a fundamental cultural change. Information can get lost and conversations can taper off when email is the primary form of communication. “I think leaders have a responsibility, where it makes sense, to move people out of email,” a participant wrote. “I heard someone once say that ‘email is where information goes to die,’ implying that we lose something by forcing knowledge into that channel.”

Not sure how the lawyers will take to that one!

Let me know what you think…

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13 Comments

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  1. Sukh Pabial / Jan 30 2012 9:27 AM

    Maybe it’s because we’re a digital agency, maybe it’s because we’re a fairly ‘young’ agency, maybe it’s because 90% of our workforce has a social presence of some sort, it’s interesting to read about these concerns, risks and issues, when for us they’ve never existed. It hasn’t been all singing and dancing (well apart from the company socials), and mistakes have been made along the way but let me make point of the following:
    – we have lost no business because of wayward use of social media
    – we actively encourage staff to ‘guest tweet’ on our company account with very little monitoring of how this pans out
    – if there’s been any concern about something that shouldn’t have happened, we rely on staff to make it known, and they do. Willingly.
    – people do grumble about work, but never anything damning or that defames the company
    – staff are much more likely to share content of interest than take time to be negative
    – using social networks allows natural communities to develop and relationships to grow which may never have happened before
    – through social networks positive sentiment is easy to encourage provided the company treats staff like adults, which they do

  2. Phil Hutchinson-May / Jan 30 2012 10:18 AM

    Mervyn
    Your thoughts and Sukh’s comment made me think that whilst some of us, me included, are adopting social media and as you point out are in “evolution not a revolution” others who are younger and new to the workplace know no different. My 14 year old is way ahead of me on twitter, facebook and skype and thinking about it so is my 11 year old. This is not “new” technology to this generation it is part of their world and how they communicate. Exciting times…..

    • Sukh Pabial / Jan 30 2012 11:57 AM

      I do want to add some caution in over-generalising my statement about the company being ‘young’. The average age of the agency is about 28. Most of the more avid users of the social networks are 30-40. Although the ‘younger’ members of staff are on social networks, they don’t seem to use the networks more than or less than all other staff.

      I’d say this is a cultural phenomenon true to my workplace. It’s accepted behaviour to use social media and no policy has been set in place for it. It just happens. Beyond this, we host a number of events in our building which also allows for an openness of communication to people not attending those events.

      • Mervyn Dinnen / Feb 1 2012 11:39 PM

        Thanks Sukh. Whether it’s an age thing or not, something about the business and culture where you are is conducive to social engagement. Doesn’t sound like anyone had to be persuaded.

    • Mervyn Dinnen / Feb 1 2012 11:40 PM

      You’re right Phil. It’s their life, it will be all they know by the time they enter the workforce.

  3. garychaplin / Jan 30 2012 12:18 PM

    Great Blog. So many people are hugely sceptical over Social Media, but these are typically those scared of any form of innovation.

    My former MD was petrified of SocMed, until she saw me gain £6-figure wins through it, but then she lived in the 1990s and was sceptical about the benefit of websties!

    Fast forward to my current CEO – hugely embracing of innovation and the power of social media…. and now sees my division as the shining light in getting the external message/brand out.

    The threat to business use of, and benefit from Social Media, is the need for content to be personal and original. A corproate site with no personality and content that is merely retweets of other peoples content will soon die.

    Gary
    @GC_HeadHunter on Twitter!

    • Mervyn Dinnen / Feb 1 2012 11:42 PM

      Thanks for sharing Gary. There seems to be an increasing curiosity around the industry, but I get excited to hear about businesses like your current one who are happy to embrace new ways and ideas. Power to you!

  4. lucythorpe / Jan 30 2012 1:29 PM

    The idea of the employee being a brand “on loan” is interesting and puts me in mind of when the BBC were first getting to grips with Twitter and other social media. A few trusted journalists were enouraged to have twitter accounts to trial the whole thing and then once the BBC realised that the world was not going to come to an end, others were given the green light to go ahead (I don’t think anyone would have stopped you having a Twitter account but there was a great deal of caution and everyone with Twitter made sure they said that their views are not those of the BBC.)

    After some time what we get now is a growing band of BBC staff members with thier own following and reputations – not all of them are reporters either. Many broadcast the news on Twitter as it happens, one friend says she can get the news out via personal twitter than it takes for the official corporation feed to update.
    One guy I follow always Twitpics the Sunday papers on Sat night. These people are giving me a news service in their own name, but they are not rivals for the BBC itself – in fact what they are doing only enhance the BBCs reputation and actually drives followers back to the BBC website for more info.

    Thought to take away? Fear of losing control of your employees or your information could deprive you of valuable opportunities to get your messsage out there.

    • Mervyn Dinnen / Feb 1 2012 11:45 PM

      Interesting story Lucy and I think you nail something important at the end. It’s about fear of losing control, particularly with a medium that the employer doesn’t have an affinity with. You’ve given great examples of ways in which a service can be enhanced too. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  5. Lyn H (@designtwit) / Jan 30 2012 3:24 PM

    Mervyn, you progressively nail this! I agree that a policy from your perspective smacks down trust in the workplace. But, I think “social media policy” should be renamed/re-branded/redefined. Employee social media guidance or a social media “How To” training, we know, can benefit the company, creating brand ambassadors from employees that may have never thought of themselves as cheerleaders for their company. Awareness, best practices, rules of engagement with social media are actually pretty progressive ideas for many American companies. Ignoring that employees use social media is tragic. If you have lawyers telling you what not to do and how you will be in trouble if you break policy, I feel that is equally as tragic. Maybe is is about approach? Fear your employees? Call it like it is. Social Media policy training is really “trust training”. And you know this is more about the boss not understanding the technology than it is about whether an employee is on Facebook or Twitter.

    • Mervyn Dinnen / Feb 1 2012 11:51 PM

      Thanks Lyn, I remember our chats in Atlanta at HRevolution about changes in communication! We’re all certainly early adopters and whilst we realise the importance of trust, to employers who don’t fully understand the possibilities that social media opens up, it may be a leap of faith too far. That’s what upsets me with some of the lawyers who present at conferences, there’s never a balance between the benefits and the possible risks. There also seems to be a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation around too.

  6. Mitch Sullivan (@mitchsullivan) / May 1 2012 8:11 AM

    I think what some companies are nervous about is less the participatory nature of social media and more the voyeurism it attracts.

    Ultimately social media bestows ambassadorial status upon all that use it and that is quite a big responsibility. I guess that needs to be another skill that has to be assessed at the interview.

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