Firms Still Figuring Out Internal Use of Social Media

Even though social media has vastly changed the way people communicate in their personal lives, the medium’s use in the corporate space is still struggling to find its footing.

This is especially true with internal corporate communication and community building, a survey released last month by human resources consultancy Towers Watson suggests.

In the survey, 56 percent of companies reported they use various social media as part of their internal communication initiatives to build community — a generous percentage, considering most social media technologies are fairly new in the workplace.

However, of the companies included in the survey, most also find various social media tools — such as instant messaging, streaming audio or video, HR or other functional blogs and enhanced employee profiles — to be ineffective as community-building tools.

Just 40 percent of companies rated most of the tools as highly effective for community building, according to the survey, which included 290 large and mid-size organizations from North America, Europe and Asia.

While more companies are likely using social media for internal communication than ever before, experts say organizations are likely still trying to figure out its strategic value.

“I think in part these measures are low because [companies] don’t know how to measure effectiveness,” said Kathryn Yates, global practice leader of communication and change management consulting for Towers Watson.

As social media proliferated throughout society in general, many organizations, wanting to maintain a cutting-edge mentality, quickly rushed certain aspects of social media as a business tool — most notably for external use, like in marketing or promoting products or services.

Yet another reason companies may be struggling to measure social media’s effect on internal connectivity and community stems from HR professionals’ reluctance to let employees freely own and embrace the practice of using social media while at work and over the company’s secure network.

Like most workplace initiatives, HR would prefer to have control over the extent of implementation. But Cliff Stevenson, senior human capital researcher for the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), said social media, by its very nature, is difficult to control. “Companies that are trying to find new ways to gather data on their employees tend to find social media as one of the least useful because of security and privacy issues,” he said.

Chris Lennon, director of product management at HR technology company SilkRoad, echoed this concept, saying HR professionals shouldn’t be the ones owning social media implementation for internal community building. Employees should. “HR wants to own it, but you have to let employees own it,” he said.

With regard to measurement, all three agreed that HR professionals need to outline a clear set of objectives before implementing social media for internal community building. Without clear objectives — or problems needed to be solved through the medium, like increased collaboration on a particular team project — measuring the effect of social media on workplace communication will be hard.

Lennon also said HR should be less concerned about controlling information. Because communication over social media is open and easily accessible, employees are likely to be more diligent in the accuracy of their engagements.

Misinformation is also likely to be corrected faster through social media because an entire community of users acts as content editors, he said, citing Wikipedia’s surprising level of accuracy as an example.

Towers Watson’s Yates said companies should always pilot any program involving social media before implementing it across the company. Starting with a concentrated team or unit within the firm gives HR — and employees — the opportunity to test run the extent to which certain tools will be used.

Stevenson, of i4cp, said even the most simple internal forums can be effective when piloting. The more stripped down and simple a social media tool is to use, the easier it is to get adoption and measure its effect on internal communication.

“It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles,” Stevenson said. “But I think for most businesses it’s a great place to start.”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at