HR and social media: the ConnectingHR ‘unconference’

On a cold day in south London last week, around 60 HR “undelegates” made their way into a building that appeared to be half community centre, half construction site. Laura Chamberlain reports on an unusual but undeniably useful event.

This was the UK’s first HR “unconference” organised by ConnectingHR’s Jon Ingham and Gareth Jones. The theme: how HR can use social media to gain a competitive advantage.

So what is an unconference? Only a select few knew when they arrived and there were more questions still. What on earth was a “Pecha Kucha”? And what were we doing in an abandoned warehouse?

However, after a full day of heated discussion and debate, countless cups of coffee and even a song, the attendees realised that an unconference is a format that encourages individual particpation and where they get exactly what they wanted out of the day.

And Pecha Kuchas? Well, in the spirit of turning the traditional conference format on its head, a Pecha Kucha is a short PowerPoint presentation, lasting exactly six minutes and 20 seconds. There are twenty slides, which automatically move on after 20 seconds. A very short and punchy way to start an interesting discussion.

As we sat down, we found five pieces of different coloured card and a pen sitting on each of our seats. We were slightly baffled by the huge grid covering one wall, like a strange piece of wallpaper for a very organised individual.

“The Grid”, we were told, was a timetable for the day that we had to fill in. This is where the pieces of card came in. We were asked to write a topic we would like to discuss on each card. Colours represented different subjects: yellow for social media, white for HR and the “age of austerity”, pink for social communication. It didn’t really matter which was which, everyone came up with five different topics.

Next, things got a little bit messy. We were asked to put the topics we wanted to talk about, and didn’t mind “hosting”, on the grid, leaving the last time slot free.

Spray-on glue together with groups of people scrambling to contribute their ideas produced something that looked a bit like a five-year-old’s attempt to recreate a Blue Peter art project. Nethertheless, it resulted in a full grid bursting with a variety of different subjects for us to discuss.

Each time slot had one Pecha Kucha presentation and each “undelegate” chose which topic looked the most interesting and sat with a small group of people to discuss. If they liked more than one topic, or if a session didn’t turn out as they expected, they were not committed to stay; they could move around the room as they wished.

With five topics going on at any one time, it was impossible to know what every group discussed but some themes came across quite strongly. The following is what this “undelegate” took back from the day:

  • Organisations can use social media to listen to staff. The rise in popularity of Twitter and Facebook has seen more employees expressing their opinions about their boss or their workplace. This should not be seen as a threat but as an opportunity for employee feedback. If you respond to what they say and feed it back into the company, it is a great tool for increasing employee morale.
  • You can’t control the use of social media. Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging are all available on your phone. If you block use of it, people will find other ways to use it. In a few years people will begin to expect to be able to use social media tools to sort out their working lives. If they are not made available, they will either do it anyway or move on to a company where it is.
  • Use social media to increase HR presence in the company. HR can use social media to let other employees see what they do and see them as individuals rather than a department they associate with negative issues like redundancy. It is a great tool for bringing different parts of the business together.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion was about using social media for knowledge sharing. The discussion, hosted by Laurie Anstis, associate solicitor at Boyes Turner, and Anna Birtwistle, lawyer at CM Murray, discussed the idea that wikis and blogs can be used to share specialist knowledge throughout an organisation.

However, this can be a challenge to introduce, especially in organisations where knowledge is key. As Kevin Ball, HR strategy consultant, employment mediator and writer, commented: “You’re only as good as what you know, so why would you share it?”

The group agreed that this was a big problem. The author of the blog Flip Chart Fairy Tales, known in cyberspace as Rick, said that senior members of staff can be like a grandmother hiding away her recipe book, which is already under lock and key. She values the recipes because she is the only one who can access them and some members of staff are the same with their knowledge.

However, as Rick pointed out, grandmother had to get her recipes from somewhere. Knowledge sharing allows the younger or unexperienced workers to learn from other members of staff and even encourages specialised knowledge. Employees don’t need to know everything if they can ask each other questions. Instead, they can become an expert in their own field.

Wikis allow employees to do this. They can contribute to a database of knowledge that other members of staff can access at any time and they can ask questions of each other and receive answers from people in the company they didn’t even know existed.

But introducing these systems is not without its challenges. Paul Massey, managing director at, suggested: “You need to engrain it into the culture of the company… Get the tech guys to find out where the best place is in the flow of people’s working lives to integrate it.”

Another idea that came out of the discussion was to reward sharing behaviour. Flip Chart Fairy Tales’ Rick commented: “If you are rewarded on the basis of your knowledge, you’re going to protect it. If you are rewarded for sharing knowledge then you will.”

The group concluded that knowledge sharing is highly beneficial to any organisation and social media is a great tool to do this with. But introducing knowledge-sharing systems involves a high level of commitment and involves changing the working culture of your organisation.

After four rounds of discussions, we sat together in a circle again, minus the coloured pieces of card, and came up with five new topics to end the day. We were told to focus on action rather than experience; what should HR be doing to move forward?

I co-hosted a group that contributed to XpertHR’s “If I could change one thing about HR…” blog and Doug Shaw’s song was performed in another.

Everyone came away with new idea of how HR can use social media for competitive advantage and had a better understanding of the tools available to do this. Social media nut or technophobe, most of the attendees took away something new and by the end of the day most of us actually forgot about the cold.

Want to share how your organisation uses social media? Read and contribute our wikis on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media tools.

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