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Social Media Go to Work

By: David Wentworth
Last updated 10/5/2010

With Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media technologies virtually omnipresent, it's not surprising that many managers are wondering how to leverage these tools. Sales and marketing were the first to exploit these technologies, which present new ways of reaching customers.  The real trick, however, is finding ways to improve productivity, collaboration, communication, and learning within organizations using tools that increasingly look like mainstays rather than fads.

It turns out that not many companies have figured out this trick yet. According to The Rise of Social Media, a report that the American Society for Training & Development commissioned from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), less than 20% of employees are using social networks, wikis, blogs, podcasts, or shared media for work-related learning often or all the time. Fewer than 10% are using micro-blogs (Twitter, Yammer, etc.), virtual worlds, or augmented realities to the same extent.

Okay, so most people aren't using social media for learning often or all the time. So what? Why should an organization be interested in any of this in the first place? A big reason is the influx of the Millennial generation (those born after 1981) into the workforce. This is a generation that would rather send a text to someone down the hall rather than speak in person, or even by phone for that matter. They cut their teeth on MySpace and soon graduated to Facebook, and if there isn't video of something available on YouTube, they're not convinced it actually happened.

The technology-aided social interactions these workers have grown up with represent a type of informal learning—one they are going to expect to find at their place of work. More than 80% of the Millennials in the study have used Facebook in their personal lives, and close to 60% have used YouTube. About 45% of Millennials said they interact with social media for learning at work for anywhere from 30 minutes to more than an hour per day. Only about a third of Baby Boomers said the same thing. Employees of all generations know these tools are going to become more important, as 83% percent of respondents say social media use for learning will increase over the next three years.

Another reason organizations should consider adopting these tools more widely is that it appears they work. The study showed that higher performing organizations are more likely to encourage the use of these tools than lower performers. Workers who use these tools for work use them for specific reasons, and many of these uses are correlated with higher market performance, including:

—Finding resources more easily
—Improving knowledge sharing
—Fostering learning
—Improving communications
—Increasing participation in learning

While employers may not yet see the value in these tools for learning, employees do. More than three-quarters of employees said they found podcasts at least somewhat valuable for work-related learning and slightly fewer said the same about wikis. Blogs, shared media, and social networks were considered valuable by around two-thirds of employees.

Understandably, though, many organizations don't wish to jump in to the social media fray without serious consideration. Besides not wanting to get caught up in a fad that may become obsolete, there are security concerns as well. More than two-thirds of study participants said they believe social media tools have the potential to create security or privacy issues at work. There are also concerns that user-generated content will not be accurate and may actually impair the learning process.

According to Elliot Masie, CEO of the Masie Center, “Companies still have some fear around social media, but employees know better. They know the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ will quickly correct any misinformation. The company-employee disconnect on adoption happens with every new technology, and social media are following this same predictable pattern.”

Others agree that the time has come to more fully exploit these new technologies. According to Tony Bingham, CEO of ASTD and co-author of the book The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media, “Historically, the learning community has stayed away from informal learning and social learning, and that is where the majority of learning is taking place. We now have the tools, and the catalyst, to engage them with that kind of learning.”

i4cp's Recommendations:
1. Implement a formal policy governing social media use.
A well developed and executed social media policy can go a long way to mitigating many of the risks associated with social media technologies. Only 44% of study participants have a formal policy in place. The policy should define the goals and purposes of using social media in the organization's day-to-day business.

2. Market the concepts to employees to boost adoption. According to Justin Mass, senior learning technologist for Adobe Systems, an i4cp member company, “Finding early adopters who can showcase the benefits of these tools to others in the organization helps immensely with adoption.” However, adoption cannot be achieved from the bottom up alone. There needs to be buy-in from senior leadership, as well as role modeling. Many executives are currently having success communicating with employees via blogs and podcasts.

3. Start from the beginning. Expose employees to social media tools from the get-go. Some companies use social networks as part of the on-boarding process. This way they are able to provide information about the company and give new employees a feel for the culture even before they set foot in the door on their first day. It also sets the expectation for the use of these tools throughout the employee life cycle.

4. Run pilot projects. Arguably the best way to foster use of social media technologies is to simply start using them. Find small targeted projects that can benefit from these tools, and use these experiences as success stories to gain both buy-in from leadership and adoption from employees.

For more information, visit www.i4cp.com

About the Author(s)

David Wentworth  is a senior analyst at i4cp.