#GoodJob: Social Recognition in the Digital Age

In the olden days of corded phones and water cooler gossip, if you wanted to acknowledge a co-worker, you thanked him or her in person, or maybe even wrote a short note on paper. But those days of quaint communication tools are over.

Today in many organizations, if employees want to thank their colleagues, they send them a custom badge or kudos via internal social media platforms. These bits of electronic praise can be viewed by everyone in the company and captured as part of that employee’s permanent profile, to be trotted out for discussion and further praise at the next performance review.

In the past few years, these social performance management tools have become the darling of human capital management software, with vendors including IBM Corp., Oracle Corp., Peoplefluent, Saba Software Inc., Salesforce.com and Workday Inc. adding their own twist to the real-time online feedback feature. There are also independent vendors offering online recognition options, including Badgeville, Bunchball Inc. and Globoforce.

The growth in this sector is being driven by business leaders, according to Stacia Sherman Garr, vice president of talent management research for Bersin by Deloitte. “There is a real hunger for recognition tools right now,” she said. “As organizations climb out of the recession, they are looking for ways to engage employees that don’t cost a lot of money.”

And while many companies add a gift-giving component to the recognition process, attaching a gift card or company perk to the acknowledgement, for most it’s all about the value of public praise.

“Public recognition is a powerful motivator that can drive business performance,” said Daniel Debow, senior vice president for Work.com, the performance management platform of Salesforce.com.

Tying increased recognition to better performance is the payoff recognition vendors have been touting for years. When used effectively, these tools promise to improve engagement, drive business goals and transform the annual review process by ensuring all of an employee’s workplace accomplishments — not just those witnessed by management — get captured and publicly acknowledged.

Flash in the Pan
As with all great workplace tools, the software alone won’t make a recognition program successful. “One of the hallmarks of these tools is that they have incredible uptake in the beginning, but as enthusiasm dies, so does the program,” Garr said.

So the question then becomes, how do you turn a software novelty into a business tool that drives business value?

The answer lies in the company culture. If a business isn’t big on giving feedback and recognizing individual performance, rolling out a recognition tool isn’t going to change that, Garr said. And even if it is big on feedback, the only way to integrate social recognition software into the corporate culture is through active leadership support, user training and regular communication about how, when and why to use the tool.

“You have to give people explicit information about why you are rolling this out and what you hope to get out of it,” Garr said.

And the tool itself needs to be easy to use and connected to the broader talent management infrastructure to be effective, said Alan Lepofsky, vice president and principal analyst for Constellation Research Inc. in Toronto. “If giving feedback requires employees to log in to another part of the network, enter special passwords and get approval from managers, they aren’t likely to use it,” he said, noting that the most effective tools are available directly in the systems where people do their work.

Putting Feedback to Work
The best tools also have tracking features that allow companies to capture every piece of feedback for later review.

“Without tracking tools, recognition is no better than a high-five in the hallway,” Lepofsky said.? But when recognition is captured, it can be used both as part of the individual performance review process and to provide HR with a pulse on engagement across the organization.

Being able to review all of the feedback an employee received over the year adds context and clarity to the annual review process, said Eric Mosley, CEO of Globoforce and author of “The Crowdsourced Performance Review.” “It gives the employee stories to tell, which can make what is normally an awkward conversation effortless.”

When all of the feedback received by every employee is combined, it offers macro-level data about the health of the corporate culture, Mosley said. Organizations can track which employees regularly receive praise, where groups of employees might not be getting the attention they deserve and whether the acknowledgements reflect the corporate goals they are trying to promote.

“That feedback can provide an explosion of data about your people,” Debow said.

Again, the key is collecting the right kind of data. Documenting a thousand generic thank yous won’t provide much insight into workplace performance, but if companies encourage employees to focus feedback around business goals, like meeting deadlines, exceeding sales targets or demonstrating core values, that feedback becomes a valuable source of data about engagement and performance, Debow said. “When you frame recognition around business outcomes you are trying to achieve, it can be a powerful driver.”

The Future of Recognition
Looking to the future, analysts and vendors agree that these tools are going to remain an integral part of the talent management process. “The technology is accessible, it is easy to use and it reinforces cultural attributes that companies want to encourage,” Garr said.

And as time goes on, the technology will only improve, Lepofsky said. Many vendors are already offering mobile apps, pop-up reminders and password-free access to make it easier for employees to engage in the recognition process from anywhere.

However, Lepofsky hopes vendors will also focus on embedding the recognition process more directly into the workflow process to give the feedback greater context. That way, all recognition related to a specific project or task would be linked to those documents, similar to a comment stream in a social network, he said.

For example, if a project manager was congratulated for meeting all of his or her key delivery dates, that recognition would be linked to the project time line document. And once the project is closed, the recognition would be archived with the documents.

“A generic ‘good job’ doesn’t add a lot of value,” he said, “but if the feedback can be linked to a specific project or task, it becomes a lot more tangible.”

Only a few vendors are offering such embedded features today, including Saba, Kudos Badges for IBM Connections and Taskworld. But Lepofsky predicted that embedded feedback will become a major selling point for the next generation of these tools. “It’s a hot area of the market right now, and it’s only going to continue in the future.”

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.