Companies accrue far greater advantages from providing their employees with social media training and letting them engage with their communities than they do from blocking access. I’ve written here before about the results of The Altimeter Group’s study that found the organizations that avoided crises or kept their impact to a minimum were the few deemed “advanced,” the ones that conducted such training and didn’t block access.
I have Sara Folkerts to thank. Sara is a social media manager for Sprint at the mobile provider’s Kansas City headquarters. Sara’s role includes a focus on getting employees engaged in social channels. She was the guest speaker at a meeting of the technology special interest group of the Kansas City IABC chapter. I’m not a member of the IABC chapter, but non-members were invited to join via a Google Hangout or a teleconference. There was even one participant from Costa Rica! The Hangout featured a camera trained on the conference table, shown below:
Sara’s presentation focused on the Sprint Ninja program, which so far has attracted some 2,000 employees to undergo training to prepare them to engage in their communities on company-related topics, from helping solve customer problems to evangelizing new phones. She pointed two two important outcomes from the effort. First, internal surveys have determined that employees who participate in the program are more engaged.
Engagement is the measure of an employee’s desire to exert discretionary effort on the company’s behalf. Engaged employees are also more inclined to recommend the company to others, whether it’s recommending its products or its desirability as an employer. Because growth in market share has been linked to levels of engagement, there’s hardly a CEO on earth who isn’t look to increase the size of his organization’s highly engaged population.
Second, Sarah said research Sprint contracted from the Reputation Institute has shown that the company’s reputation has improved as a result of its trained employees speaking directly with customers via social channels. Since reputation can also be linked to a company’s valuation, a strong reputation is a valuable asset. (The book Reputation by Charles Fonbrum, founder and chairman of the Institute, had a profound impact on my thinking about PR and communications.
Interestingly, the Reputation Institute also suggested the company needed at least 8,500 employees to be engaged online for Sprint to achieve the full potential of employees engaged online with the public. The company’s working on hitting that target.
Here’s one more nugget out of many I took away from Sara’s session: Among the topics Sprint’s employee Ninjas say they’re most interested in is information about the company’s social media activities. That got me thinking: How many organizations report as part of their routine internal communication efforts on what the company is doing in the social space? Among the companies I’ve worked with, I’ve seen very little attention paid to sharing social media plans and activities. Internal communicators should make it a habit to keep employees up to date on how the company is engaging with its customers, both tactically (such as reporting on the launch of a social campaign) and strategically (like the steps the company is taking to become a more social business).
In any case, nurturing your internal advocates makes a whole lot more sense than restricting employee access to social media. Sprint is among the companies blazing the trail toward effective, informed employee social interaction.
(She doesn’t know it yet, but I’m going to try to convince Sara to be a guest on an FIR interview.)
Palo Alto Networks is out with its annual numbers on employee work time spent on social networks. The company’s conclusions are based on analyzing raw data from 1,600-plus companies for a seven-month period last year. Their press release on the study confirms something we already suspected: “explosive growth in global social networking and browser-based file sharing on corporate networks, with a 300 percent increase in active social networking. (e.g., posting, applications) compared with activity during the same period in the latter half of 2010.”
The press release quotes the company’s CMO, René Bonvanie, saying “Whether or not employees are using social networks or sharing files at work is no longer a question; this data clearly demonstrates that users are embracing and actively using such applications.”
But, since network security is Palo Alto Networks’ business, the conclusion Bonvanie reaches is that you’d better watch out because productivity and network security are at risk. So the reporting of the study will serve mostly to encourage the lockdown of social channels at work. That conclusion, as far as I’m concerned, misses the point entirely.
In fact, a tripling of employee access to social networks is a cause for celebration, not panic.
For example, the numbers point to widespread adoption of Twitter at work. Nobody’s playing Farmville on Twitter, but we know from the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) study, “The New Symbiosis of Professional Networks,” that professional peer groups have moved from proprietary networks to Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. It’s likely that a lot of the tweeting going on from work is work-related.
In 2010, the bandwidth consumed by employees for Faceboook apps, social plugins and posting was 5 percent. In the new study it has risen to 25 percent. isn’t it interesting, though, that Palo Alto Networks includes “posting” as one of the activities driving the increase.
The numbers also point to file sharing sites as the source of a lot of bandwidth consumption. Of course, posting to and visiting Slideshare and Scribd, for instance, are good things, not something to worry about. These are places where knowledge is transferred.
The reason workers are using social networks is, in large part, that these channels are increasingly becoming a routine part of how work gets done. Yes, I understand that some people abuse their access and that companies need to address concerns over the introduction of viruses and other infections, but these issues need to be addressed without hamstringing the bulk of the population that uses social networking to improve their productivity and the company’s performance.
Social channels is exactly where employees need to be, given the results of Edelman’s 2012 Trust Barometer, which was released today. According to the Executive Summary…
(As trust in CEOs dropped, trust in) “a person like me” has re-emerged as one of the three most credible spokespeople, with the biggest increase in credibility since 2004, and now trails only academics and technical experts. Regular employees jumped from least credible spokesperson to tied for fourth on the list, with a 16-point record rise. Social-networking, microblogging, and conte-thsaring sites witnessed the most dramatic percentage increase as trusted sources of information about a company, rising by 88, 86, and 75 percent, respectively.These results alone should make it clear that a tripling of employee engagement in these channels bodes very, very well for companies.
If you need more evidence that this is just the way people communicate, there’s another report from ReadWrite Enterprise that wonders whether dumping email as a channel for employee-to-employee communication might just make sense. One of the reasons online veteran David Strom cites is that, “as social media becomes more prevalent, it becomes easier to have conversations in the public eye, or at least on the corporate Intranet.” He lists activities like posting questions and replies in these channels.
There are other shifts leading to email’s demise –- the shift to mobile, and that IM, group chats and other technologies work better. Of course, email between the company and anyone outside the organization would remain a regular communication tool.
But Strom’s post reinforces the point that we’re using social nertworks at work as an important part of getting the job done because it’s just more efficient. That’s what technology is supposed to do. Of course, there are organizations that get this. CNN Money profiled nine companies from the list of the best companies to work for that have added social networks to the workplace. For example, Intuit’s @TeamTurboTax draws upon product managers and engineers to tackle customers’ problems. Intuit says that when the tax season comes around, employees throughout the pipeline volunteer to contribute to the effort to respond to customersk. So, would all those posts be counted in the Palo Alto Networks’ “posting” data? And if so, that kind of traffic needs to be viewed as a company advantage,something to be nurtured, not a cause for locking down the organization.
I posted an item to my blog last week praising Zappos for its handling of the server security breach. One of Zappos’ actions was to send an email to customers. A few of the few commentsto my post came from people who hadn’t gotten that email. It didn’t take long before someone from Zappos left a comment that apologized, explained that the emails are going to tens of million of customers in batches and that took a while. He then let everyone know what to do without waiting for the email. He signed his comment, “Jonathan, random Zappos employee.” Again, these are legitimate work-related purposes to which these channels are being used. I’d start training employees to do more of this, not make it harder.
But Palo Alto Networks has an incentive to put its view out there as a press release that’ll find its way into the inbox of a lot of executives, and that’s why you’ll continue to see companies blocking employee access, like the more than half of companies in Ireland do.
Finally, remember the Altimeter Group’s social media preparedness study, which points out that companies that train their employees on policies and practices experience a far lower risk of problems arising from social media than those that bolt the doors.
If your employees aren’t among those whose use of social media at work has tripled, you have a reason to be concerned. Your competitors that understand that shift in work processes are primed to kick your ass.
I initially reported on this story on today’s episode of For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report.” It is cross-posted from my primary blog at holtz.com.
This is my presentation from BlogWorld and New Media Expo Los Angeles on November 5, 2011. It’s one of over 100 recorded sessions from BlogWorld Los Angeles 2011. You can get all of the videos — plus nearly 100 bonus interviews and other bonus content — by picking up the entire Virtual Ticket here: http://www.blogworldexpo.com/virtual-ticket-la-2011/
In re-listening to an interview I conducted a few months ago with U.S. Department of Defense Senior Strategist Jack Holt, I waas struck by a sound bite that encapsulates brilliantly the reason organizations should stop blocking employee access to social channels and provide them with the training and guidelines they need to operate safely and productively in these spaces. Holt, who focuses on new and emerging media for the DoD, said (and I’m paraphrasing here):
Will we treat social media as a fortress to be defended or as a field of maneuver?
You can hear a brief segment of the interview (less than four minutes) in which Holt makes this case here:
The DoD regularly sends soldiers into harm’s way in pursuit of military objectives. To ensure success, soldiers are well-trained to operate in various environments, from tropics to the desert to urban centers. If they can be trained to be safe and effective in these environments, why (Holt asks) can’t they be trained to operate safely and effectively online?
The DoD’s answer — encapsulated in its policy opening its networks to staff access to social media — is yes, they can.
That philosophy has led the government of British Columbia to open its networks to employees, as well. The guidelines issued by the province to its public servants not only opens access, but encourages employees to use these channels. Stories about BC’s policy quote Allan Seckel, Deputy Minister to the BC Premier and head of Public Service, making the case for open access. Social media, he said, is playing a more and more important role in the everyday work of public employees. Blocking access can impede the ability of employees to do their work, leading them to circumvent blocks and use their own equipment.
British Columbia’s decision runs counter to many government agencies — particularly provinces, states, cities, and towns — which assume that any employee spending time on social sites is using taxpayer dollars to screw around. According to Seckel, staff using social media were able to deliver updates during emergencies and engage in public consultations.
“We don’t block access any more to social media,” he said. “We want to say to our employees that we trust them — and we do trust them — to be responsible,” Seckel told the Vancouver Sun.
Nevertheless, organizations worldwide continue to treat social media as a fortress to be defended, keeping their staff behind the moat rather than teaching them to maneuver on the field to the organization’s advantage.
For example, luxury car maker Porsche has banned employees from social media sites based on fears of industrial espionage. Corporate security honcho raier Benne told the business publication Wirtschaftswoche that the company was afraid of employees leaking information via Facebook, noting that foreign intelligence agencies systematically use facebook to connect with employees and extract information.
Blocking access, of course, does not keep employees off Facebook, whether they use a mobile device or connect when they’re at home. Again, training and education is the better solution, which then allows employees to evangelize the brand among their social graphs. Clearly, Porsche hasn’t paid much attention to GM, which encourages employee engagement in social media and has linked car sales to employees’ online brand ambassadorship.
Employee use of social media should no longer be viewed as a source of risk. Treating social media as a field of maneuver can help focus organizations on strategic approaches to mitigating risk while reaping the benefits of engaged employees interacting with their online communities.
Tuesday at Gartner’s Security and Risk Management Summit, research director Andrew Walls told attendees that although infosec pros may worry that social networking will lead to uncontrolled malware outbreaks, phishing, breaches of confidentiality and trade secrets, and even damage to the corporate reputation, trying to take control or even block its use is akin to monitoring employees’ home phone calls and rifling through their postal mail.
“All this message traffic is not in your infrastructure,” Walls said. “It all takes place out there in the cloud,” plus it can be accessed from anywhere, and users’ privacy settings can make monitoring nearly impossible. “At the root of it is staff productivity, and security isn’t responsible for monitoring and managing the productivity of the organization.”
Some believe social media represents a growing platform for malware distribution, but Walls countered that argument, noting that antimalware vendors he’s spoken with say social networks are being victimized by the same malware plaguing email and websites. “So if I’m going to block social media on the basis of malware distribution,” Walls asked hypothetically, “why not block email?”
The article goes on at some length to chronicle Walls’ arguments against blocking social media in the workplace, even making a vital point that has been at the heart of my argument: Organizations will, he said, come to realize the value of hiring someone who possesses a vast social network. “The most valuable people,” he told the audience, “are going to be the ones who demand social media the most.”
The entire post is well worth your time particularly if you’re trying to make the case against blocking in your organization.
This blog focuses mostly on the value to organizations of allowing their employees to access the social web. It is equally important, though, to grasp th degree to which employees are desperate to use these tools — not to waste time, necessarily, but in many cases because they help employees do their jobs.
The “Government of Canada 2.0” blog recently published an instructional guide to help employees of Canada’s government get unblocked. The blog is hardly an official government vehicle. In fact, it’s upfront about being “in no way endorsed by the Government of Canada.”
The post, “Strategy to get your Internet unblocked,” is “a bullet-point strategy to possibly unblocking Internet sites. I’m taking a business-oriented approach here, and broad general steps.”
What follows is a guide to overcoming a staggering government bureaucracy that involves sending requests to the Help Desk to determine whether an unblocking process exists and taking appropriate steps based on the answer. The author — Douglas Bastien from Ottawa — also offers tips, like articulating the business case for access in writing, communicating the business need to higher-ups, and asking for the rationale behind the blocks that do exist.
Bastien also refers to policies addressed in an earlier post, a 1998 policy on the use of electronic networks and a 2003 policy on management of information technology. Bastien writes,
I’m actually convinced that the TBS policies don’t block access; it’s restrictions from the department, exerted through Deputy heads’ (continuing) implementation of these policies because ”Deputy heads have a responsibility to put in place policies and practices that promote the appropriate use of electronic networks… consistent with the operational needs of the workplace”.
Beyond working within the system, though Bastien doesn’t see much hope of getting access to employees — access he believes employees need to do their jobs. “Your only last option is leaving to go elsewhere,” he writes, acknowledging that for many, it’s just not an option. He does, however, point out that some corners of government are beginning to recognize the relevance of unfettered employee acccess.
There are those who work corporately toward a balanced use of Government network, such as my blogging mentor Etienne Laliberté, whose post “Facing Facebook” communicates the trust position he pursued for his department on Facebook (applicable to other social networks). Please read the article, we need more managers like this paving the way for acceptable use of social networking, than just blocking it outright, or not blocking it and pointing fingers at those who break the rules.
Bastien also lists some means by which employees can simply route around the blocks, but clearly he’s more interested in employees en masse making the case for access.
Reports of companies blocking access to social sites are often accompanied by a proclamation by a business leader or IT manager declaring that there is simply no business value in employees spending time in this venues.
Dave Knox, corporate marketing brand manager for Digital Business Strategy at P&G, begs to differ. Interviewed by Vince Thompson on his Smart Planet blog, Knox asserts that the time he spends on social sites provides perspective that he’s able to apply directly to his work.
When working for a big corporation, you have an amazing amount of resources at your fingertips. And you are surrounded by incredibly smart people. But most of these people have a similar background to you and are trained to approach problems in the same way. My blog has helped me by giving me access to people with different backgrounds and views on the business world. It is a way to connect with these people outside of my day to day work and really get a set of different viewpoints on what is going on with marketing.
My external network has emerged as my business filter, allowing me to sort through the noise and keep on top of what is really important. While it might save time in the short-term to slow down in social media, I think it would hurt me in the long term in terms of personal growth and knowledge.
Getting your job done has short- and long-term dimensions. Business leaders looking for long-term value from their employees need to get beyond the superficial understanding of social media and grasp the long-term value that can accrue to the organization when its employees are able interact with communities outside the company’s cloistered environment.
Measuring that long-term value — the worth of the insights and knowledge gained from online social interaction — sounds like a great project for somebody. In the meantime, what value has your on-the-job engagement in social media produced for your organization?
Companies everywhere are blocking employee access to the Net, fueled by questionable research and irresponsible pronouncements of self-serving individuals and organizations. This site is designed to serve as a hub information resource for those who believe the benefits of providing access far outweigh the risks.