Most human resources managers would rather their staff didn’t spend all day on Facebook. But so-called Web 2.0 technologies also offer employers real opportunities, argues Jessica Twentyman.
When someone mentions Web 2.0 to you, do your eyes glaze over in a confused techno-haze, or does it excite you?
For many employers, the second generation of internet technologies – known as Web 2.0 and covering anything from social networking site Facebook to running a ‘wiki’ (an online resource that allows users to add and edit content) on your intranet – pose a threat. As far as they’re concerned, they simply provide employees with both the means and the opportunity to spend their working hours ‘poking’ old schoolmates and sharing video clips, rather than getting on with the job at hand.
It’s no wonder, then, that there’s been a backlash against Web 2.0 at many organisations. In a recent survey of more than 300 UK HR professionals, conducted by internet monitoring specialist Clearswift, two-thirds (65%) reported that their organisations block employee access to social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, and half said that they have had to discipline staff for wasting time on the internet in the past year.
But according to Penny Davis, head of HR operations at mobile phone operator T-Mobile, it’s time for HR professionals to take a fresh look at Web 2.0, and how it can help them tap into new talent pools, encourage staff to collaborate, and build their employee brand.
In the past year, for example, Davis and her team have used Facebook to help new graduate recruits make the transition to the world of work.
“We set up a group on Facebook in May for the 2007 intake so that they could network informally with each other and the T-Mobile recruitment team before their September start date, enabling them to get to know each other and air concerns in a friendly, supportive environment.”
The graduate recruits leapt at the opportunity with enthusiasm, she says, using the Facebook group to organise flatshares, discuss what they should wear on their first day of work, and get information about parking facilities at T-Mobile’s Hatfield headquarters. In fact, the initiative was so successful that the company has already built a similar group on Facebook for its 2008 intake – and hopeful candidates have already signed up to it, Davis adds.
“We’re a technology company, so social networking sits well with our image as a forward-thinking employer,” she says. “And as an HR organisation, we need to ensure that as Web 2.0 technologies develop, we fully understand their potential and the likely impact on our business.”
In 2008, she adds, T-Mobile will start to look at how it might use other social networking sites, such as SAGAzone, and may extend its recruitment activities to online virtual world Second Life.
T-Mobile’s not alone, either. Take management consultancy KPMG, for example, the Royal Bank of Scotland, or data storage giant EMC. All three held careers fairs in Second Life during 2007. And at publishing company Informa, group head of HR Keith Brownlie and his team have taken their use of Second Life further still, to create an online careers planning environment.
More than MySpace
But Web 2.0 isn’t just about social networking and virtual worlds, says Rob Banathy, client relationship manager at IT services company, Parity Solutions.
The term also applies to a vast range of office tools that enable the creation of websites that support rich media (such as video and audio outputs) and collaborative content (such as forums, blogs and wikis).
The beauty of using such tools, as opposed to more consumer-focused counterparts, is that they apply corporate-grade security practices to content, enabling organisations to impose control, limit information exchange to authorised personnel, protect document libraries, and provide a full audit trail. “As long as security is built into the development process, the collaborative environment can be inherently secure, whether within or outside the corporate firewall,” he says.
“HR professionals have been talking about collaboration and ‘flat’ organisations for the past 30 years, but they didn’t have the means to do it. Now, technology’s an enabler,” he says.
Blogs and wikis provide an invaluable medium for the HR department to publish information to employees and allow them to respond to it, agrees Scott McArthur, a former HR director, and now a consultant in HR and change management at IT services company Atos Origin.
He’s been blogging for over a year now, and says it has opened his eyes to the possibilities of ‘many-to-many’ technologies. “My network of HR professionals is around six times larger as a result of my blog, and I’ve been able to tap into whole new areas of expertise,” he says. “From my experience, no-one in HR can afford not to understand this technology.”
And he sees plenty of uses for blogs and wikis in mainstream organisations. For many of his clients, he says, they’re proving a great way of “informing employees about the latest market trends, emerging areas of customer demand, and new areas of corporate policy”.
But for most HR professionals, Web 2.0 remains a murky area. In the Clearswift survey, only one-third (34%) of respondents actively use Web 2.0 technologies, and one in five said they were unfamiliar with them.
That lack of awareness is a real disappointment, says Deborah Fernon, organisation and resourcing adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). “Blanket bans on Web 2.0 technologies are a short-sighted approach to take for any organisation that wants to increase the appeal of its employee brand and interact with employees and candidates on a more personal level,” she says.
In 2008, the CIPD plans to dedicate more resources to researching the potential of Web 2.0 in an HR context. But she says one thing is already clear: HR departments should be working more closely than ever with the IT department to explore the possibilities of Web 2.0 within their organisation and to develop policies that govern how – and why – it is used.
Suddenly, relaxing your rules on internet use at work could be the best thing you’ve ever done.
Career planning in a virtual world
Keith Brownlie, group head of HR at publishing company Informa, is on a mission to make career planning a more engaging experience for the company’s 10,000-strong headcount – and he firmly believes that the virtual world of Second Life is the place to do it.
With that in mind, the company has built its own, private zone in the online virtual world that Informa employees can visit to access information about job functions, competencies and skills gaps – as well as play football or take on a challenging assault course with their colleagues.
To do so, they need to develop their own ‘avatar’ – an online representation of themselves that can ‘teleport’ into that zone, the ‘Transformed Careers Island’. In this zone, each building represents a function within Informa – sales, for example, or editorial.
Once inside a building, they can view the ‘day in the life’ of the ambassador for that function, read and save the competencies required for those roles, and see what training or experience gaps they have in meeting the competencies for the role they want to move to. They can also chat to the ambassadors who man each building, and view internal job vacancies in all of the global Informa businesses.
“As a company, we’re in the business of providing our clients with the information they need in new and innovative ways, so it’s only right that we should take advantage of new technologies to do the same for our internal employees,” says Brownlie.
And, according to Peter Dunkley, founder of Depo Consulting, which developed the Transformed Careers Island for Informa, the company has taken its use of Second Life to a whole new level. “Lots of organisations now use Second Life to hold meetings, but few of these initiatives involve providing employees with the kind of rich, in-depth content that Informa’s project does. And what’s more, that information is presented in a way that employees find really interesting – they can just wander around the island and look at things, just like they would in a store.”