Open the Door: Allowing Employees Access to Online Social Networks Can Bring Myriad Benefits

Article excerpt

Speaking recently in Amsterdam at the Orange Business Live conference, Denmark's Peter Sondergaard, senior vice president for Gartner Research, told the audience that innovation happens at the user level, an unstoppable trend, and that policies that try to inhibit access to the Internet are losing strategies.

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Sondergaard's observation is notable in that he didn't tackle the usual reasons that companies block access. Instead, he pointed to the lost opportunities that will result from such knee-jerk behavior.

More than half of U.S. companies block employees' access to social networking sites, according to a study conducted late last year by Robert Half Technology. Nineteen percent let employees use sites such as Facebook and Twitter only for business purposes, while 16 percent permit limited personal use.

The problem with these categories--business use and personal use--is that the two are becoming increasingly intertwined. The innovation of which Sondergaard spoke doesn't always result from social interactions that can be classified clearly as business-focused. In fact, most companies haven't yet recognized the value they can extract from their employees' social graphs, the means by which the interconnections between people, groups and organizations in social networks are illustrated.

There are exceptions. Sprint, the U.S. wireless company, neither limits what its employees can do online nor monitors their activities. Instead, the company offers optional training so employees can become "Sprint Ninjas," empowered to engage directly with customers, share best practices and discuss hot topics.

This kind of customer engagement is part of a concept gaining traction called "social CRM," a shift from the management of customer relationships only by designated customer service representatives to the active engagement of employees throughout the entire workforce. (See page 31 for more on social CRM.)

Building stronger relationships with customers is only one outcome organizations can tease from employees' everyday online interactions.

Recruiting

The often torturous process of recruiting new employees is designed to identify a group of strangers whose resumes match the job description, and then separate out those who also are a good fit for the company's culture and are most likely to work well with those already in the department.

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It's a process organizations will put themselves through less and less as they recognize that their employees' social networks often include a professional community of people who do the same kind of work. These social media peer groups (SMPGs) are woven through larger networks on the most popular networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Employees--particularly those performing knowledge work frequently already know the best candidates for a vacant job based on familiarity bred through online engagement. Companies that encourage employees to connect with their SMPGs at work will find recruiting not only an easier task, but one that results more often in a successful long-term hire.

Subject-matter expertise

Building a strong online network provides employees with access to intellectual capital that can extend far beyond the limitations of the company workforce.

Getting answers to questions demonstrates the strength of weak ties. Put a question out to your network and the answer is more likely to come from someone you barely know--or don't know at all--than from someone with whom you have a strong relationship. People who ridicule those with 1,000 Facebook friends miss the point. No, they're not friends in the traditional sense, but this larger network expands reach, increasing the likelihood that your question will reach someone with the knowledge you need.

Linkedln, the business-focused social network, makes it particularly easy to find answers from experts through its "Answers" feature. …