Getting oomph online: corporate social networking

The social networking phenomenon has spilled over into business. Natalie Cooper finds out why HR departments with oomph are perfectly placed to steer corporate social networking into the mainstream.

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There’s an online social revolution taking place – generally referred to as Web 2.0 – that is set to dramatically affect the way HR recruits talent, manages employer branding and communicates with employees and external clients locally and globally. It is even set to change how HR will help companies compete for business share.

So are you web-savvy or are you being left behind in the race for online oomph? Here’s a scene taking place in companies across the UK. “What’s a widget or a tagcloud and what are keyword phrases all about?” the HR director asks the head of IT.

“It’s all to do with Web 2.0,” replies the latter. “A tagcloud is one of many possible widgets that can be built on an online platform,” he continues. “Keywords are tags that are picked up by search engines such as Google and are used to build up the tagcloud on your blog to improve your search engine rankings.”

Does any of this sound familiar to you? If it sounds like irrelevant techno­babble or gobbledegook, consider brushing up on your web skills before your chief executive asks you to integrate corporate social networking into your organisation.

If, on the other hand, you recognise a few of these terms and perhaps even use them in work conversations, then congratulations, you’ve joined the expanding social networking revolution. But are you and the rest of your department making the most of it?

Two-way communication

Ensure you are up-to-date with the latest developments in social networking. You cannot have missed the success of Friends Reunited, which launched in July 2000. But its popularity has been overtaken by more recent and sophisticated social networking sites boasting greater functionality, interactivity and personality, such as MySpace (with more than 100 million worldwide accounts) and Facebook (with a rapidly increasing 30 million worldwide accounts).

Such sites are no longer the preserve of bored students. Whether you like it or not, most of your employees are probably members of at least one networking site, so it makes sense to incorporate this way of communicating into the way your business is run.

“Today, people use the web much more for two-way communication, rather than simply as a medium for receiving information,” says Graham Wylie, head of marketing at Reed Managed Services, part of HR consultancy Reed Consulting.

“In the era of Web 2.0, individuals are disseminating huge amounts of information over the internet through websites, blogs, forums, chatrooms and networking sites. These tools enable groups to quickly and easily keep in contact with each other.”

Wylie says HR must understand that Generation Y – those under the age of 30 – is used to instant messaging and responses. He says HR departments must ensure they are meeting the expectations of employees used to communicating as equals in this way. Only by joining in with corporate social networking can HR take ownership of how its brand is communicated through these channels.

Join the revolution

Kick off your entry into the web revolution by setting up a corporate blog – an informal tool that can engage clients, employees and candidates and a move that can only improve your oomph rating.

John Cass, author of Strategies and Tools for Corporate Blogging, says: “If you’re cynical about the concept of corporate social networking, ask yourself: do I use a search engine to find information? Then think about how your customers and employees are using keywords in the Google search function.”

Corporate blogs are great for picking up web traffic – the holy grail of every website – because traffic is driven by keywords. And HR can build the employer brand as well as targeting a particular audience – such as jobseekers – by ensuring plenty of appropriate keywords are included in the blog.

However, the greatest challenge, according to Jo Sellwood, managing director at HR recruitment specialist Strategi Search & Selection, is the speed at which this online revolution is taking place. In the past, networking was not seen as central to HR’s role. That, she believes, has to change.

“As HR professionals start to work as business partners in a centralised and strategic role, social networks and communication tools such as blogs take on new meaning,” Sellwood explains.

HR directors are realising that blogging is likely to influence recruitment, retention, engagement and other workplace issues, so it looks as if it is here to stay.

Bear in mind that in the absence of a corporate blog, employees are likely to blog about the organisation elsewhere, and not necessarily in a positive way, which risks a negative impact on the employer’s brand.

Innovative initiatives

Another online initiative worth considering is the creation of a corporate intranet, which can include blogs and forums through which HR and management can easily communicate company news and post internal job vacancies. Employees can swap ideas, share information, as well as pose questions to HR or management, ensuring a healthy two-way flow of information.

Olivia Cook, account director at corporate social networking consultancy SelectMinds, says she is seeing an increasing number of employers embrace corporate social networking.

“The camaraderie that is built among colleagues through corporate social networks fuels positive views of the employer brand,” she says. “More employers are realising the real value that a more connected workforce can add to the bottom line.”

Philip Gennoy, HR director at insurance company Allianz Cornhill, agrees. Gennoy is responsible for Allianz’s UK business and its 4,200 staff, and is part of a global steering group set up by his board to drive innovation. He worked closely with the company’s head of innovation John Warburton to develop an innovation strategy in August 2006.

The UK innovation project was split in two. One half focused on the coal-face, through which 130 employees were identified as innovation champions and the other led to the setting-up of a high-level strategic innovation unit with the aim of bringing together senior management to brainstorm new ideas as effectively as possible.

Gennoy and Warburton brought on board professor Eddie Obeng, director of virtual business school Pentacle, to design a collaborative online working tool. This resulted in the creation of a common online working area for UK employees, through which the innovation champions could interact freely with one another.

Obeng explains: “Using corporate social networking allows a team to stay in touch between meetings and share thoughts. Without that, momentum wanes. These key members of staff communicated with one another using this technology.”

He says that as organisations become bigger, flatter and more geographically spread, HR has to be able to deal with a higher number and broader range of employees.

“Corporate social networking sites allow employees across the business to share best practice, including business processes, performance appraisal and internal recruitment,” says Obeng. “This means that a company project has a coherent view of the whole business, from product, customer and corporate perspectives.”

Think about creating social networking spaces to support particular business projects. “When HR departments get involved, they are often in the best position to help determine which individuals should be selected for a business project that you back up via a social networking site,” says Obeng. “Equally, they are best equipped to diagnose the initial training that might be required to spark a particular project into action.”

This puts HR professionals in a good position to showcase their expertise to the wider business and their knowledge of what the organisation requires to make its strategic projects work. In other words, they have the opportunity to show the business that HR has oomph both online and off.

Corporate social networking with oomph

  • Pitch your social networking idea to management as a learning network rather than a social one. Make it as much about learning as interaction, bringing staff who do not normally work together into contact.
  • Use a social network to support a particular business initiative.
  • Create spaces such as virtual desks, similar to a chat room, where you can drop an e-mail to another team member of a specific project to go and pick something off their virtual electronic desk. This encourages staff to rely less on their normal e-mail function and instead log into their virtual desk, ensuring that they focus their attention on the initiative and their project team.
  • Include a tutor function – a guideline on best practice – in the social network.
  • Cherry-pick the best possible talent for a project from across the business, rather than allow a particular business faction to dominate.
  • Management can also log-in to check the status of a project, helping them manage their time and involvement more effectively.

Source: Eddie Obeng, director of virtual business school, Pentacle

The web user’s glossary

  • Web 2.0 The move away from the web as something you just read to a place where you write pages, share photographs, video and audio.
  • Social network Any site that allows you to designate people as friends and share content with them. These can be music-based (MySpace), video-based (YouTube), blog-based (Vox), photo-based (Flickr) or a combination of all of these (Facebook).
  • Corporate social networking As above, except with the intention of sharing business rather than private information. The best known site is LinkedIn, but many people use Facebook or blogs for similar purposes.
  • Blog An easily updatable web page, where the latest entry goes at the top of the page, and older ones appear in reverse chronological order below. Can be used for anything from personal opinions and journals, through to business information. Readers are usually offered the opportunity to leave comments.
  • Forum A website that exists to allow users to create discussions among themselves. The first post appears at the top of the pages, and later ones further down. All users are equal on the site, unless there are moderators, who have the ability to stop discussions or delete posts.
  • Chat rooms Software or websites that allow text chat in real time with multiple people. They were a common feature of internet use in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but have become superseded by forums, social networks and instant messaging.
  • Wikis Websites that any reader can edit. The theory is that mass collaboration can pool the knowledge of multiple people and create better results than people working alone using ‘the wisdom of crowds’. The best-known example is Wikipedia.
  • Podcasting/vodcasting Publishing audio or video files in a form that can be subscribed to and automatically downloaded to software such as iTunes whenever a new episode is published, to be listened to on your computer or on a portable device such as an iPod.

Source: Adam Tinworth, head of blogging development, Reed Business Information

First steps to creating a blog

  • Think about what you want to achieve by creating a blog – what is your end goal? With whom do you need to build relationships?
  • Think about who would be best placed to blog – who has expertise in their field and can talk with authority?
  • Talk about issues in your industry that will be relevant to your candidates and employees.
  • Split up the blogging role to help monitor what’s going on.
  • Interact and comment on other blogs relevant to your industry.
  • Think about relevant keywords.

Source: John Cass, author of Strategies and Tools for Corporate Blogging

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