What is your business doing to give employees the freedom to connect with each other, create new ideas and challenge conventional thinking?

This was the question posed last week by management guru Gary Hamel as he launched his ‘digital freedom challenge’ – a rallying cry to encourage companies to break away from bureaucracy and control and give their people freedom to exploit the full potential of social media.

Hamel points out that an increasing number of companies are adopting internal ‘social tools’ (like the social platform that comes as part of Cezanne OnDemand) in a bid to improve collaboration and drive innovation.

But although they have embraced the technology, they are still hanging onto old practices of trying to ‘control’ people and information and stop employees straying off the approved corporate path.

Simply having the technology, he says, is not enough in itself. Companies need to adopt a mindset of freedom and autonomy and put the groundwork in place to make sure their social platforms really work.

So what can you do to encourage a collaborative culture and exploit the full potential of the latest generation technology?

Embrace the concept of freedom

Moving away from the accepted ‘norm’, where managers control what people do and how they do it, can be a scary prospect. But if you want your business to be truly fast moving and ahead of the game, you have to give people the freedom to experiment with new ideas, take small risks and dip their toes into waters that fall outside their specific job role. “Without freedom, there will be little initiative, creativity or passion,” says Hamel, adding that leaders need to shift their focus from “minimising deviations to unleashing capabilities”.

Give people permission

It’s quite common for companies to introduce an internal networking tool such as Yammer or set up a social portal only to find that very few people actively use it. Often, this is simply because people are unsure of what they are ‘allowed’ to say or do and fear they will get into trouble if they stick their nose into someone else’s project or challenge a long-established way of doing something. You need to tell people that it’s OK to speak out, make suggestions and get involved in things that fall outside of their official remit. Be explicit about the fact you want people to get out of their departmental silos and contribute openly and transparently across the business – and that there will be no negative repercussions for doing so.

Provide training

It’s also a mistake to assume that presented with a social network, everyone will automatically know how to use it. The best technology is intuitive and easy-to-use – but can still be daunting for those who have not grown up in the digital age. A short internal training session should be enough to get everyone up and running – but make sure you also offer one-to-one support for those who may be struggling and need a little longer to get used to the technology. You could also consider identifying those in the business who are digital enthusiasts and asking them to mentor colleagues who may need convincing.

Experiment and refine

It can take time to embed a new internal networking system and get it working well. Depending on the size of your business, you could consider piloting a social platform in a few areas first, so you can see how it works and iron out any issues before launching it across the whole company. You may find you need to invest time up front encouraging people to use the platform, overcoming any negativity and reinforcing messages about how it will help people do their jobs better. Of course you can also use the network itself to get feedback from employees about additional features they would find useful and any further support they might need to use the technology successfully.

Reward success

Make sure you reward people who display the kind of behaviour you want to encourage on social platforms. Exactly how you do this will depend on the reward system you already have in place in the business. At at the very least, make sure you shout about successes that have come about as a result of improved collaboration and communication. Highlight people are making great use of social media, and consider making them ambassadors or mentors who can drive use of digital communication tools within the business. Encourage managers to raise the topic of internal networks in the performance conversations they have with their team, so that everyone understands it’s important to the business and considered a key part of their role.

As part of the ‘digital freedom challenge’, Hamel and his colleagues are encouraging businesses to share stories of the bold moves they have made to encourage autonomy in the internal digital space. Let us know if your business has a story to tell.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.