The view that HR is the police force of employees' use of social media in working hours is outdated, according to many industry experts.
Social media will be a big theme at many HR conferences this year and the online world is already awash with HR blogs. Business networking site LinkedIn probably provides the world's largest database of professional CVs. And the inaugural 'ConnectingHR' tweet-up - an event held in late March for UK-based HR professionals who use microblogging service Twitter - managed to attract more than 60 attendees to a central London pub, despite torrential rain on the night.
Evidence suggests that, when it comes to social media - a broad term encompassing social networking sites (such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace), professional networking sites (LinkedIn, Plaxo, Xing) and other online media communities (Twitter, YouTube, blogs) - the HR profession is actively seeking value, rather than pursuing outright bans.
For example, they are using social media in their own professional development. A March 2010 survey of 925 HR professionals worldwide, conducted by online communities provider Toolbox.com and PJA Advertising and Marketing, found social media is seen as a useful tool for problem-solving, with its main uses being 'keeping up-to-date' (cited by 78% of respondents) and 'networking with peers' (71%).
More than half of those surveyed said they had responded to a question posed by a peer in an online community, while nearly 50% said they have built their personal knowledge network by using social media to make contact with their peers in other organisations.
But social media doesn't just provide a medium for sharing knowledge and experience with others from the HR profession - it's also a vital tool for getting work done. To date, the area that has been the focus of the most discussion and experimentation for HR professionals is recruitment. Social media sites, as many HR professionals are finding out, provide a quick and easy way to reach out to vast audiences with potential job candidates and build relationships with them.
In the UK, for example, companies with Twitter feeds devoted entirely to recruitment include banking giant HSBC (@hsbUK_careers), computer company IBM (@IBMUKCareers) and beverage company PepsiCo (@PepsiCo_ukjobs).
Others are using Facebook, possibly the world's best-known social networking site, with more than 400 million active users worldwide, and over 23 million in the UK.
This year, Facebook has become an important part of Enterprise Rent-a-Car's highly successful employee referral programme.
Even before launching its Facebook strategy, Enterprise Rent-a-Car was already attracting about 38% of UK recruits through employee referral, says HR manager Ashley Hever.
Employees can now embed an application on their Facebook profile, showing friends where they work and how to apply for a job. Hever says the idea could further increase referral rates. "Within two to three days of rolling this out to employees, applications began to come in from their Facebook friends," says Hever.
One of the key attractions of the approach, he says, is that it gives the ability to track referrals back to their source.
"We know our employees use Facebook and we know they often alert their friends to job opportunities at Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Now, we can combine the two in a way that is new and innovative, and also supports our own distinctive employer branding," he says.
What social media tools are being used?
Management consultancy KPMG runs a fan page on Facebook for UK university leavers interested in the company's graduate recruitment events.
UsingTwitter, HSBC, IBM PepsiCo and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) 'tweet' information on vacancies across the council at @RBKC-Jobs. In January 2010, Heineken UK established a 'Heineken UK Job Opportunities' discussion group on www.linkedin.com/ LinkedIn.
The European Union uses YouTube to showcase a handful of its 40,000 worldwide employees and the diverse range of roles they perform.
The Resources Communication department at Alexander Mann Solutions has worked with several clients to create Ning communities for recruiting.
Understanding the audience
Understanding where to start with using social media for recruitment is a question of understanding the audiences each service or tool attracts, according to Martin Cerullo, director of the resourcing communications arm at Alexander Mann Solutions who works with the firm's clients to develop the right strategies in this area.
One client, he says, is using LinkedIn to identify candidates looking for their second or third jobs, post-university. Another is using Facebook to market its global leadership programme to likely prospects.
He urges firms to use sites that are frequented by likely candidates. "A 'scattergun approach' is unhelpful and time-consuming," Cerullo warns.
Richard Doherty, sales director of talent management software consultancy JobPartners, says HR professionals are finding other uses for social media.
"While 2009 was a year of experimentation in recruitment, 2010 will be the year in which the HR department will begin talking with managers from other parts of the business about the part social media has to play in wider initiatives to boost employee engagement," he says.
These cross-department conversations will largely focus on enabling employees to collaborate more closely in ways that support the wider, strategic goals of the organisation as a whole. "I see these projects developing as internal social networks that people will use to make contact with colleagues and present the skills and experience they have to offer, particularly in large organisations," he says.
Adrian Moss, head of Web 2.0 at IT company Parity Solutions, agrees: "Internal collaboration will be where the big wins lie for smart companies in the coming years," he says. Already, some of the most forward-thinking organisations are using Yammer, a real-time microblogging tool similar to Twitter but operating only within a single organisation.
Others are exploring how existing corporate intranets might be upgraded to support social media tools. "An HR team that is already well-versed in social media will be much better placed to take a leadership role in company-wide employee engagement initiatives," he says.
Achieving that stage of knowledge and understanding may be a daunting prospect for many HR professionals, says HR blogger and consultant Jon Ingham: "Take a good, hard look at where your organisation needs to be compared to where it is today - and then work backwards, formulating your plan," he says.
"But above all, use all the social media tools at your disposal yourself, so that you truly understand both the experience and the opportunities they offer."
Case study: Electronic Arts
Matthew Jeffery, head of global talent brand at computer games firm Electronic Arts, says using social media merely to publish vacancies is "utterly, soul-destroyingly boring." Instead, HR leaders should view social media as a community building tool. "Yes, the end goal may be 'bums on seats' and hiring people from that community, but telling a story, taking the community on a journey and building passion for your brand is critical."
At the heart of the company's social media strategy, called Inside EA: People, Games and Opportunities, is the InsideEA blog (www.insideea.com).
Here, the company showcases simple stories: photos of employees at a team bowling event, a look behind the scenes at the company's offices in Shanghai or San Francisco, insights into how the company puts together learning and development programmes, and so on. The blog ties in with a number of key social networking sites, too. New stories on the blog are automatically published to InsideEA's 114,000-plus Facebook fans and 2,300-plus Twitter followers.
The InsideEA YouTube channel, meanwhile, includes training videos on differing career paths and what the company looks for in job candidates. And the company is also using LinkedIn discussion groups - "a great tool to start discussions with professionals on a number of engaging subjects (not recruitment)," says Jeffrey.
Social media does not need huge financial backing, he says, just "time, knowledge and passion". He believes those HR professionals who don't harness those qualities and put them with a far-sighted social media strategy will suffer in the long run. "If a company does not effectively engage in social media and its competitors do, it will lose the war for talent, and ultimately, its bottom line will be damaged," adds Jeffery.
Transforming careers in a virtual world
Business information provider Informa has developed its own virtual world using Second Life, allowing employees to explore career opportunities.
Second Life is a virtual world, which people can join using the internet. Users teleport into the world as avatars - virtual representations of themselves.
Informa has created a virtual island - called Transformed Careers Island.
Launched at the end of 2007, the island allows employees to explore virtual boards to find out which skills they need to progress their career.
HR director Alison Chisnell worked with group marketing and operations manager Vicki Ansell to drive the project forward, following a staff survey that showed employees thought of Informa as a job, rather than a career.
They decided that their existing careers website, Transformed Careers, had run its course and wanted to create a site that would appeal to the Web 2.0 generation.
They championed the idea and enlisted the help of brand experience firm Depo Consulting to produce the virtual tool.
It designed 14 job function regions, such as sales, marketing, editorial, IT, HR and research, where employees can view virtual boards displaying a day in the life of an ambassador for each function. There is also information about any job vacancies available.
Chisnell says: 'If, for instance, you wanted to take a speculative look at working in marketing, the information is presented in bite-size pieces to give you a flavour of what it's all about but it also allows you to print off more detailed information. The experience is a lot more visual."
There is a facility to chat to ambassadors, using instant messenger or voice recognition software. Another innovation in Transformed Careers Island is a virtual London Underground - where billboards advertise jobs at Informa.
There is also a chill-out area, a beach and a five-a-side football pitch, allowing staff from across the world to interact and bond as a team.
The firm estimates that the tool saves it £12,000 for each European regional meeting and also reduces its carbon footprint.
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