Just a few years ago, skepticism abounded over the place of enterprise social media. Sure it made sense to communicate with customers via social media, but what place did this sort of technology have inside the business? Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a business not providing a social networking platform, be it Yammer, Jive, offerings from Microsoft or IBM, or some type of homespun intranet.
The question now is how well these offerings serve the purposes of collaboration and business transparency. Deloitte's recent survey on corporate culture suggests executives and employees are of distinctly differing opinions. For example, in the survey of 1,000 workers and 300 executives at U.S. companies, 45% of executives said social media has a positive impact on their workplace culture, while only 27% of employees agreed.
It's one issue that IT director David Pudvah has witnessed firsthand at Methods Machine Tools Inc. At the Sudbury, Mass. family-owned supplier of precision machine tools, younger employees and family members -- including the company's chairman -- use social media tools at work among themselves and for interacting with customers. Older employees -- like the company's CEO -- are uninterested in using social media tools at work. However, after witnessing the benefits of engaging customers through social media, they too are beginning to come around -- but they're not exactly jumping to write blogs or communicate at the office via IM. "It's all about sales," Pudvah said.
"It's like any new shiny technology; you think there's some competitive advantage to be had by using it," said TJ Keitt, analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "You assume that your employees deeply want it because you observe some behavior in someone's personal life and you take the leap of faith saying, 'Well maybe this will work, maybe it won't and we'll go from there.'"
Not on the same (social media) page
Executives and employees who participated in a survey for Deloitte had distinctly different impressions of how well social media in the enterprise promoted the workplace culture through communication, collaboration and transparency. Here is a sampling from the survey. The percentages represent the number of respondents who agreed with the given statement.
- Social media allows managers at my company to be more transparent with employees, which builds a more productive workplace culture. Executives: 38%, Employees: 17%
- Social networking helps my company build and maintain workplace culture. Executives: 41%, Employees: 21%
- Social media and online collaboration tools are critical to building and maintaining relationships with colleagues. Executives: 46%, Employees: 27%
- Social media has a positive impact on workplace culture. Executives: 45%, Employees: 27%
- Social networking and online collaboration help me feel connected to my company and its leadership. Executives: 37%, Employees: 22%
Survey commissioned by Deloitte. Harris Interactive surveyed 1,005 U.S. adults (aged 18+, employed full-time in a company with 100+ employees) and 303 corporate executives on a number of questions related to culture in the workplace.
This approach is nearly always destined for failure, according to Keitt. For one, many of the activities wrapped in "social technologies" are available elsewhere. If a worker is content using email or a self-provisioned chat interface to communicate, they may not be so eager to try something new. This is especially true if the new tools are not integrated into employee workflows. It may be useful to have a social profile, share documents or find internal experts to help solve a problem, but if those capabilities are not naturally connected to any business process, it can be out of sight out of mind, Keitt said. Implementing enterprise social media is a change management issue, but companies rarely view it that way.
"Anyone expecting a technology in and of itself to create anything doesn't really understand technology," Keitt said. "People change their culture, executives set the agenda, and middle managers execute and create the incentives to change behavior."
Corporate culture matters to emerging workforce
Pudvah's observations of enterprise social media are not particular to Methods Machine Tools. The generationally divided attitudes toward social media in the enterprise are familiar to Jessie Newburn, a generational-dynamics expert and president at Stellium Communications in Columbia, Md. Stellium focuses on helping businesses adapt to an era of social change.
Corporate leaders would be smart to address the generational gap in communication modes, Newburn suggested, as this disconnect comes at a moment when corporate culture is more important than it has been at any time in recent history. The Millennial generation -- those workers in their mid-20s to early 30s -- are projected to comprise half the nation's workforce before the end of 2013.
Unlike their Baby Boomer generational predecessors -- who were generally concerned with preserving their turf -- and Generation X, who cared mainly about accumulating skills, the Millennial generation wants a peer-oriented and collegial work environment. Suddenly corporate culture has a different meaning, Newburn said. "Millennial employees are picking the cultural fit that will support their growth and development, so they can have fewer jobs with more security," Newburn said. "Corporate culture is hugely important right now -- in a way I doubt many people have looked at very closely."
Making enterprise social media meaningful
Neither Keitt nor Newburn suggest that executives inject their opinions into every activity stream or strike up random chats with employees. More discreet but meaningful and consistent interactions go a long way in communicating corporate culture. Keitt's favorite example of that "just right" level of involvement is demonstrated by Cisco Inc. CEO John Chambers. Because Chambers puts a premium on face-to-face interaction, he maintains a consistent telepresence.
"That is a demonstration of what is important to the business and what is important to the leadership of the business," Keitt said.
Rather than running out and purchasing the latest in collaboration software and hoping for the best, executives need to take the time to find out how employees work and what their needs are, Keitt said. This means asking people what makes their job difficult -- from interpersonal interactions to finding information.
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"You can do that through surveys; you can do that through focus groups; you can do that through in-depth interviews one-on-one," Keitt said. "But you have to have an understanding of what is happening at the user level as opposed to at the kind of high level of 'this is what we'd like our people to be.'"
Few executives really understand the potential of social media tools for improving the work lives of their employees, Newburn said. They read or hear chatter about social media and get excited because they see it as an opportunity to reach more customers and sell more products. She said this may well be the foundation of the disconnect in enterprise social media.
"They don't get that underneath social media is a culture change and a mind change. And in order to have a culture and a mind change you have to be willing to do things differently and think differently and solve problems differently," Newburn said. "I don't think most executives are there."