Cisco chief executive John Chambers recently called on his global HR team to use Web 2.0 tools to produce a cultural transformation within the organisation, moving from a command-and-control leadership style to one based on collaboration and dialogue.
Charlie Johnston, HR director for UK & Ireland at the company, is enthusiastically rising to this challenge.
"The impact in the next five to 10 years of new technology and social networking in the workplace will create a need for new organisational models, leadership principles and, most importantly, cultural and behavioural change," he says.
"HR in all sectors should use this opportunity to step up to a new role at board level and drive an agenda of workplace transformation underpinned by technology."
Cisco held a 'Global Virtual All Hands' video conference in which Chambers communicated with 600 HR employees across the globe. Traditionally, this kind of event would have been limited to a small handful of senior leaders, who would have been expected to travel the world, hear the messages and communicate them to their teams. Instead, in an auditorium in San Jose, California, Chambers gathered the US HR staff, and the event was then streamed live to HR teams across the globe via internal web channel Cisco TV. Staff could raise their hands virtually, vote on his thoughts, and submit questions.
Chambers also records his 'On My Mind' and 'On Your Mind' video blogs every other month. The company's I-Zone wiki gives all employees the opportunity to submit new product ideas or build on their colleagues' ideas. Employees have submitted more than 500 ideas through this interactive online forum, including input that led to Cisco's TelePresence collaboration solution.
Johnston concludes: "Where HR once only used the web to share policy and procedural information, Web 2.0 has created a means where video can be used to show a manager how to manage in practice, while forums allow managers to learn from one another."
Wayne Turmel, president at web communication consultancy Greatwebmeetings.com, offers seven top tips for getting the most out of webchats.
Over the summer of 2008, 2e2 - a company that installed the phone system at Heathrow's Terminal Five and runs the IT department at the London Borough of Barnet - invited two 18-year-olds to tell managers how they should be communicating more effectively with their employees.
"Our senior management wanted to get the perspective of someone from that generation," explains Martin Healiss, group HR director. "We thought: what better way than to have them come in and spend some time with us?"
A key finding was that 18-year olds expect social media to be as much a part of how they communicate with managers and colleagues as how they communicate with friends. 2e2 saw an opportunity both to improve how the company engages with its employees and to get ahead of the curve and start developing a service that HR departments across the country would soon need.
Indeed, many organisations are already using social media to communicate with their staff. The Department of Health recently held a live webchat session through which NHS employees had the opportunity to put questions to health minister Ben Bradshaw. For organisations with a large number of staff spread across geographically disparate locations it can be a highly cost-effective method of communicating.
However, there are risks involved. How can you ensure that the conversations are constructive? How can you effectively filter the questions? To what extent should you control the conversation? You want it to be productive, but you don't want to appear to be too controlling.
These are difficult questions, and few organisations know the answers. This uncertainty is holding them back from making the most of this potentially very useful HR tool.
Using social media for training is now fairly well established. Jane Williams, executive director for further education, skills and regeneration at Becta, the government's agency for technology in education, says: "Between 60% and 80% of what staff in the workplace learn is from informal learning.
"Increasingly, organisations are looking to technology to support this learning. Our recent research shows that 29% of organisations are now using social media and online technology to support informal learning."
But some employers are going further to use social media to strengthen employee communities.
Stéphane Roussel, HR director at SFR, Vodafone's French operation, says: "The average age of our employees is 36, and this generation is very demanding in terms of the use of technology at work. To foster the loyalty of generation Y, you need to provide them with the same kind of technology that they are using in their personal lives."
The company runs ActiveNetworker, a system in which employees can discuss their career aspirations with their colleagues and managers. After just three months it already has 10,000 employees making an average of 80,000 visits per week. Roussel expects that in a year every SFR employee will have a profile on ActiveNetworker, a solution provided by Jobpartners.
Other businesses are using social media to convey corporate messages to staff.
Back in the UK, the Ministry of Justice employs more than 80,000 staff spread across the country, so when it wanted to discuss the issue of learning within the workplace, it set up an issue-based webchat function with two board members, including the permanent secretary of the department, Suma Chakrabarti.
There are many obvious benefits to using social media networks. The problem is that there are just as many potential pitfalls.
The first is that you cannot control the conversation. Lee Smith is the founder of Gatehouse, a consultancy specialising in employee communications.
"Social media is very different to more traditional 'top down' forms of internal communication," he says.
"Unlike news items on the intranet, employee magazines or corporate video, it is very hard to package the information and stick to carefully scripted messages.
"Social media is based around a two-way conversation," he adds, so, there's a high chance employees might not say what you want them to say.
Rob Marcus, the managing director of Chat Moderators - a firm that polices webchats for organisations such as Glaxo Smithkline, Blue Cross, and Panasonic - says: "The greatest danger is that you'll get comments or questions that are embarrassing to the company. Some might even be downright rude. You need to moderate these conversations effectively, striking the right balance between freedom and control."
For Kevin Jaquiss, head of HR consultancy at law firm Cobbetts, one of the most pressing issues is whether or not to allow anonymity in conversations.
"If you insist that employees give their names, you can moderate what they're saying and take action if they say anything they shouldn't," he points out.
"But this means you don't get the full benefit of using an informal means of communication. On the other hand, if people can be anonymous, you're at risk of people saying unfortunate things or even defaming others."
Getting it right
It is a challenge, but not one that should prevent any HR professional from exploring more closely the potential of social media for employee communication. Gatehouse believes that to a large extent online conversations are self-policing.
"If someone stands up and makes a fool of themselves or simply moans and groans about everything, people will generally put them right," he says. "Or they'll just ignore them."
He believes that by starting small, and making a long-term commitment to open, honest communication, an HR department can reap great benefits from social media.
Tim Gibbon, director at communications consultancy Elemental, agrees. "The key is to make everyone feel that their opinion is valued and wanted. One way of doing this is to appoint employees to both chair and moderate the session. You can also incorporate polls and voting, to give people another way of expressing their views."
Many organisations decide to bring in external help. Jeremy Gould, head of internet communication for the Ministry of Justice, says: "The webchat seemed like a great way for us to engage in open discussion with all staff on a subject that affects our working life within the department. We knew it would be impossible for us to adequately monitor the content of the live chat ourselves, so we decided to bring in Chat Moderators to help."
Others, though, are happy to go it alone without consultancy help. 2e2 has built a range of its own online social media tools, which go live this month. Employees will be able to find company experts on a subject and chat about projects or issues. Healiss says the company has no plans to moderate any part of it, and is confident that the company's employees will use it responsibly and find it useful.
He even intends to demonstrate it to his customers. "So far people have been reluctant to spend money on this, as they've wanted to see how it all works and to get a clearer view of potential return on investment," he says.
"However, I know that people are absolutely fascinated by the possibilities, and when they see what we've done they're going to love it."