Social media at work: breaking down barriers to communication

Social media often has a bad name in HR – something to be controlled or banned in the workplace. HR blogger Jon Ingham returned from this week’s Enterprise Social Media conference in London with a wealth of examples of how social media improves communication and collaboration within organsiations.

Barriers to communication in the workplace are getting weaker, and social media technologies are the driving force. Attendees at the Social Media in the Enterprise conference held earlier this week heard how Virgin Media, Santander, Axa, Asda and Pfizer are all using social media to engage and connect their employees, both with each other and with their organisation.

For Helen Farrar, head of internal communications at Virgin Media, one of the main benefits of social media is moving “water cooler conversations” into the public arena. This helps the company engage its people in “an entirely different way” as well as gaining a good understanding of what people are thinking and feeling.

Other benefits include bringing dry topics to life, and creating communities of employees. A good example is the company’s wiki of office locations, set up to help staff work productively at different sites, but which has also created local communities within each office by bringing together people who would never normally feel the need to speak to each other – for example, ‘the guy in finance’ with ‘the guys in the call centre’.

Sarah Cullen, head of events and engagement at Asda, described how the retailer combines face-to-face communications, such as its daily ‘huddles’, with the use of social media. One of Asda’s social media systems is its Green Room, which gives the company’s 170,000 colleagues a chance to share what they are doing in their communities and through working with charities. Asda is proud of what its colleagues are doing so all of this user generated content is in a public domain.

Simon Revell, associate director of collaboration and web technologies at Pfizer Global Research & Development, described how Pfizer’s use of Microsoft’s SharePoint and OneNote systems as well as their own ‘Pfizerpedia’ has enabled young scientists to create much better-informed research and case notes.

The speakers also talked about the challenges they have faced in implementing social media. For Sonia Carter, senior manager of online communications at Axa UK, this has been mainly about having to follow process – which meant the difference between a zero-cost, six-week implementation for their first social media system, and a £500,000 and 12-month implementation when they implemented the next version.

Another challenge has been making effective links between departments. Carter also described some of the frictions between internal communications and employee relations at Axa. Cullen suggested one of Asda’s main issues had been forming connections between HR and IT to ensure Asda’s staff had the right levels of access to the company’s social applications. One of the speakers suggested Marks & Spencer’s Social Council, which brings together HR, internal communications, IT and other functions to provide governance for all social media use, as a good model to manage these potential problems.

The other main challenge described by the speakers has been influencing how employees use social technologies that are accessible publicly as well. Carter explained that Axa has implemented a very “black and white” external communication policy because some people lack a sophisticated understanding of reputational risk or data protection. However, Anthony Frost, head of corporate communications at Santander UK, felt that the split between the internal and external worlds has disappeared and that all employees need to understand the external world as well as the press office does.

Earlier in the day, Dion Hinchcliffe, editor-in-chief of Social Computing Magazine, stated that the main challenges in implementing social media are usually about people, and that to overcome these challenges, we need to change our thinking. All five of these case studies demonstrated in different ways the ability to make this mindset shift.

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