Lifting barriers to communication

Social media is changing the way we work. The more conversations you can generate in the office, the more successful your business will be, as Clare Gascoigne reports

BigRuckus has voted 1,980 times on mystarbucksidea.com, the three-year-old website that invites comment and suggestions from the coffee giant’s customers. And that’s just in November.

BigRuckus might be unusual (or perhaps just has a lot of time on his or her hands). But for Starbucks, BigRuckus, DadCooks, Charliebouse and the host of others who have posted product ideas, music suggestions and complaints about seating are a fantastic resource.

“This is all about conversation,” says Tazeeb Rajwani, lecturer in strategic management at Cranfield School of Management. “Businesses are continually trying to improve their delivery to the customer, and crowdsourcing [asking a large and often undefined group of people for input] provides free information and innovation.”

Starbucks is among many companies harnessing the power of social media to improve the bottom line. Indeed, there are those who believe social media is fast becoming mandatory for corporate use.

Social media will soon be as reviled as those who refuse to answer the phone,” says Jeffrey Mann, vice president researcher at Gartner, a technology consultancy. “Using this technology is critical to business success in the 21st century.”

The way people interact at work is becoming more sophisticated

But what is social networking? There are no hard-and-fast definitions, but anything that invites a response from a group of individuals can fall under this term, whether in a public forum such as Facebook or an internal Twitter-style network.

“The way people interact at work is becoming more and more sophisticated,” says Max Mockett, researcher at Hot Spots Movement, a specialist research and consulting team that bridges academia and business. “There is a move to a more social approach at work, one based on friendship, not hierarchy.”

Generation Y (very roughly, those under age 30) are a key driver of this trend. The first generation to grow up with social media tools, this age group is bringing personal mobile devices into work, and using them.

“It is changing organisational structures,” says Dr Rajwani. “Companies can no longer maintain the old command and control structures. These technologies are designed to engage with people; they are part of the mindset of Generation Y, which wants to talk to employers in a similar, social way.”

But social business is not just for creative industries, where organisational structures are often flatter and more fluid, the use of social media technologies brings huge benefits to all types of business.

“Social media is much more than is implied in the name,” says Xabier Ormazabul, director of product marketing at Salesforce.com, an enterprise cloud computing company. “It’s a convenient and easy way to communicate, and the main driver is context.”

Mr Mann agrees. “If you look at the activities taking place on Facebook, but change the words, then it becomes highly relevant to business. So instead of keeping up with what your friends are doing, you are keeping up with what your colleagues are doing. Instead of asking advice on what shoes to buy, you’re asking advice on which supplier to use.”

A 2010 report from management consultants McKinsey & Company found that the “networked enterprise” (one that uses these collaborative Web 2.0 technologies to connect employees internally, and reach out to customers and suppliers externally) significantly improved performance.

“Everyone understands the external-facing bit, the connection to the customer,” says Mr Ormazabul. “It’s at the next level, when you apply these technologies internally, that you get a lot of value.”

He argues that any business will benefit from social networking, where individuals are connected to each other in a kind of permanent watercooler moment. But instead of relying on a chance and possibly infrequent physical encounter, everyone can see exactly what everyone else is doing via brief but internally public comments. “It’s about how to drive a more interactive company culture – becoming a culture of transparency,” he says.

For businesses that rely on knowledge sharing or are geographically diverse, the benefits are obvious. An internal Wikipedia, where colleagues add to the sum total of the company’s knowledge about different subjects, helps prevent duplication of work. An internal Twitter can help people converse and collaborate in such a way that research and innovation moves faster. Giving staff access to an internal blog can motivate and encourage everyone to feel connected.

“Suddenly, you have access to all these people and all these ideas,” says Mr Mockett. “Aggregating tacit knowledge within a company adds value. The payoff is amazing.”

Much has been made of security problems with social media, leading some companies to ban the use of public sites at work. But the benefits far outweigh any risks, and experts are united dismissing such problems.

“The best policies for use of social media are common sense,” says Mr Mann. “If you wouldn’t say it at a party or in the pub, don’t say it here. Most people want to do what’s right for themselves and the organisation.”

Companies need to make sure there is a clear agenda to any social networking, whether it’s listening to the customer or sharing knowledge. That agenda will help decide which networks, what information and which people should be involved.

But it’s not just inside companies that social media is being used. Many individuals are turning to these networks to further their career outside the company umbrella. Such personal branding is particularly useful for freelance professionals, says Mr Mockett.

“We are seeing the development of ‘virtual guilds’, which mimic oldstyle guilds based on professionalism, individual reputation and shared job opportunities,” he says. “An individual’s reputation resides in the network, not a company.”

Like so much in the 21st century workplace, social networking is constantly evolving, and sometimes it seems to add to the corporate workload rather than reduce it; just one more activity that businesses need to understand. But joining in just because everyone else is doing it is the worst possible strategy, and likely to lead to disaster.

Instead, the advice is to focus on what you want to get out of it. Then it becomes not an obstacle, but a resource to lead you into the 21st century workplace.