In February 2011, it looked like things couldn't get any worse for Nokia, the Finnish mobile phone company. The now famous "burning platform" blog post by CEO Stephen Elop (which many at first thought to be a leaked internal memo) rapidly went viral, with millions of people reading his painfully frank thoughts on where the company was going wrong, how it had missed out on market share and that it had to decide whether to "plunge into icy waters" or perish.
Matthew Hanwell, Nokia's community and social media HR director, remembers it well. "I was angry," he says. "It's a great metaphor for where we are, but we actually knew all of this already. That said, it was a wake-up call for the company in terms of saying: 'We have some very difficult decisions to make now, which way are we going to go?'"
Matthew Hanwell, HR director, community and social media, Nokia.
What Nokia's detractors at the time probably didn't know was that Hanwell, alongside teams from IT and other parts of the business, had already started work some months before on encouraging employees to have a more open and honest dialogue. A project known as "Reconnecting Nokia" had commenced six months prior to Elop joining the company in September 2010. Central to this was the use of social media. This encapsulated a portfolio of internal social networking platforms, including a Facebook-type tool known as SocialCast, whereby people can post questions, "follow" each other, rate videos and share ideas.
The idea was to lower the barriers to participation in the wider company dialogue and improve employee engagement at a time when the company's fortunes seemed to be uncertain. "If you invite participation, rather than broadcasting everything to employees, you lower the threshold to people providing ideas," explains Hanwell. "Those who are able to participate and interact are generally more engaged in what they are doing."
Openness and honesty
Social media is also central to the new leadership values of openness and honesty at the company. On his first day at Nokia, new CEO Elop posted in one of the social media forums, saying: "Imagine we're having a cup of coffee together. What would you say that we need to change, what must we keep and what do you think that I might miss?" The response was immense, with some threads on the discussion attracting hundreds of posts.
But where some executives might treat this feedback as a box-ticking exercise, Elop started a dialogue about some of the things that had been said. "We knew that he was listening because he was responding to some of the comments in that social media thread. And, better than that, he would at every opportunity stand up at a 'town hall' meeting and reference these conversations that he had been having online. It was very powerful," says Hanwell.
Using social media to bring employees together was not new at Nokia, however. It had introduced an employee forum known as "Jazz Cafe" in 2001, but, over time, a raft of new forums, wikis and blogs had been introduced without any of them becoming truly effective. Ensuring that employees know where to go to access intelligence has been crucial in how social media has helped to turn Nokia's fortunes around. "We decided that if we were going to create a social media culture in Nokia we should have a portfolio," explains Hanwell. "We wanted something where, in the same way you don't have to think before you send an email or start a PowerPoint presentation, people would not have to think where to go to interact in a certain way." SocialCast now has approaching 30,000 users across the organisation.
Role of technology
Having had "a foot in both camps", as Hanwell describes his career, helps him understand the role of technology in improving employee collaboration. His background is in technology, having worked in HR and enterprise resource planning systems implementation before joining Nokia 14 years ago to roll out their global HR software system. He "officially" joined the HR function in 2000 but admits that he is "fascinated by the balance between technology and people". "How do you get people to use technology really well, how do you get the most out of that investment?" he asks.
His job title is a highly unusual one for an HR professional, but one he believes to be forward-thinking. "I had this responsibility for creating a community way of working and working out how we get communities to come together in Nokia. Social media would enable all of that to happen, so I was given this title," says Hanwell. The sponsor for social media at Nokia is its head of HR, Juha Akras.
Fear around social media
"In my opinion, HR needs to be much more involved in [social media] and take a much stronger role in it going forward," he adds. "It affects the way people collaborate and the extent to which they come together. That's an HR issue." However, he recognises that there is considerable fear around embracing social media in the HR community. "The analogy I always use is swimming - if you can't swim, if you've never learnt to swim, being confronted with a piece of deep water is pretty frightening," he explains. "The digital natives will dive straight in, but some people are afraid to even dip their toe in the water. If you don't actually try it, you'll never understand the benefits of it."
But while social media is helping Nokia to overcome the issues that have hampered its success in the past few years - silo working, a failure to innovate quickly enough and not recognising how the market for mobile phones had changed - Hanwell appreciates that it is not a "silver bullet" that is going to make everything right.
"But it does give you a sense of openness and participation so you can understand and debate what's wrong," he says. "The discussion we had about how Nokia should change told us what we already knew as a company, but perhaps before we had not been able to utilise that intelligence, because we had no way of accessing those conversations. If every individual had sent an email, nobody else would have been able to know what was being said."
When the company announced its new strategy, days after the "burning platform" post made headlines in February 2011, Hanwell and his team pre-created a number of groups within SocialCast so conversations about the new strategy could take place. Every opportunity is taken to embed openness and discussion into employees' working lives. Social media is also being used to help employees affected by the changes at the company, for example by redundancy, to discuss those changes with colleagues and share the burden.
It might seem counter-intuitive to place social media at the heart of Nokia's future strategy when there is so much it needs to achieve to claw back a share of this fast-changing market, but Hanwell and the other leaders at the company do not doubt its role. "We find people get more done, and better things done, as a result of being better connected," he says. It is difficult to argue with that.
Matthew Hanwell can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.