Are you scared of social media?

Are you a social media sceptic or an enthusiastic convert to the concept of digital conversations? 

I suspect if we could have a show of hands from HR as well as senior managers in many small businesses or mid-sized enterprises today there would be more of the former in the room. But if some of the enthusiasts at last week’s CIPD conference on Social Media in HR are to be believed, it may be time to think about switching camps.

Delegates heard some fascinating examples of how businesses were using tools like Twitter, Yammer, Wikis, and Chatter to build engagement and spark innovation.

Informa described how hierarchical barriers were being broken down by use of Twitter within the business. The CEO tweets regularly and has been able to build relationships and engage in informal conversation with employees who are fellow members of the Twitterati.

The Big Lottery Fund talked about how they were increasing collaboration and cutting down on duplication of effort across the business via The Big Connect – an internal on-line forum that helps employees get in touch with each other, share knowledge and ideas and manage projects virtually.

Save The Children gave a fascinating (and humbling) account of how they were using some of the latest technological tools to deliver just-in-time training to staff out in the field. There were also some enlightening examples of how a business can make or break its reputation by the way it manages its presence and responds to feedback in the new ‘wild west’ of social media.

There’s no doubt that social media can take companies into dangerous terrain. But one of the key messages to emerge from the conference was that there’s no point in managers trying to take on the role of High Sherrif.

Some businesses are tying themselves in knots trying to come up with watertight policies that set out exactly what staff can – or more usually can’t – do on sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. They are concerned about sensitive commercial information leaking out into the public domain, worried that employees will damage their reputation with derogatory comments or simply think that staff will fritter away valuable working time organising their social life on Facebook.

The reality, however, is that if a disgruntled member of staff is going to ‘bad-mouth’ the business they will do it anyway – in or outside of work and regardless of whatever rules you may try and impose. And if people are really determined to do as little work as possible, they will easily find distractions other than Facebook to detract them from their job.

One of the speakers summed it up neatly. We are in the middle of a communications rebellion and companies quite simply have to adapt or die. There’s no use trying to control social media, but what you can do is encourage informed participation.

It’s about guidelines, not rules, and about facilitating rather than legislating – because people who are educated and informed are more likely to do the right thing than not.

It may seem like a scary social media world out there, but there are a growing number of businesses – large and small – who can demonstrate that a decision to embrace digital conversation can have a real impact on the bottom line. Allowing people to build and participate in digital communities encourages knowledge sharing and can lead to insights that can provide real competitive advantage.

In an increasingly tough commercial environment, can you afford to ignore it?

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