Are you ready to jump the firewall and create a social workplace?

Social network applications have been focused on the social marketplace, where companies can interact more directly with their customers. This way of communicating has permanently and profoundly changed the way we communicate. Find out how it’s on the brink of changing the way we work, too.
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Using insider knowledge and expertise, the Generator Group's articles in our Expert Network are designed to present thought-provoking ideas, information and workplace trends that will help manufacturers and retailers alike acquire, retain or develop their workforce to drive business success.

Social network applications have been focused on the social marketplace, where companies can interact more directly with their customers. This way of communicating has permanently and profoundly changed the way we communicate, and now it’s on the brink of changing the way we work.

“With 350 million active users on Facebook, time spent on social sites increasing three-times in 2009 alone and one blog posted every six seconds, it is entirely possible your employees know less about their co-workers than they do about friends they haven’t seen in 10 years,” said Bryan LeBlanc, CFO of Jive Software (www.jivesoftware.com), which produces social business software.

So, if collaboration is happening outside of the workforce, the next logical step would be to adapt it for internal business use. Essentially, bring the outside in and give people a familiar means to collaborate each day in order to drive the business.

For organizations waking up to the notion of the “social workplace,” there are more than 200 software companies -- like Jive -- ready to help. A new slew of collaboration tools anchored by document capture, such as wikis, blogs, instant messaging and social networking sites like Facebook, as well as software like Sharepoint, are adding to more traditional technologies, like email (which, by the way, is predicted to go by the wayside as early as 2014, according to Gartner Research). Technology companies, government agencies and universities seem to be making the leap faster than retail and manufacturing, but a push from the workforce could be the tipping point.

Workforce demands

Beyond collaboration, companies are finding younger employees, such as the Gen Y generation, expect access to Web 2.0 tools at work. When you grow up playing video games with others around the world, you come to expect a certain level of technology in all aspects of your life, including the workplace.

Younger workers are really tight with their computers, their laptops and gadgets and they have a better relationship with their technology at home than at work. It makes sense they would want to use their own devices to communicate -- whether it’s official or not.

We live in an interesting dichotomy, wedged between securing the enterprise and opening it up to a seemingly chaotic degree of information sharing. When it comes to learning, especially urgent learning on the fly, employees are going to seek out the information they need from the sources that offer it the fastest -- often from mobile devices and through social connections all across the globe. If company executives want some semblance of control, they better start participating to see what it’s about.

Risk vs. benefit: A leap of faith

Social networking could help with some significant organizational challenges. When business goes social, it changes how information flows -- actually, it doesn’t just flow, it flies. When a companywide online community works, employees connect and information and knowledge moves freely without restrictions or hierarchical divides. For a business, this fluid collaboration, consolidated information and access to diverse expertise can translate to speed and agility in the workplace. 

But, it’s a scary proposition, too. Many executives are uneasy with such openness. What about product confidentiality and brand image? What about hierarchy of data and information? What about employee productivity? Are we going to see workers on the job glued to their Facebook accounts? IT and legal departments have plenty of fodder to add to the hesitancy. But the belief is that collaboration will be as common as a firewall or antivirus software in the future.

The need to balance enterprise content management and collaboration can clash as companies try to strike a balance between control and innovation; however, the potential for benefits in sharing knowledge, developing client solutions, increasing speed of service delivery becomes so evident that early adopters are finding ways.

According to Paul Gillin, author of “Secrets of Social Media Marketing,” “A growing body of research points to the fact that immersing your company and your people in the stream of conversation that is happening online is critical to success. Top-performing companies are nearly seven-times as likely as poor performers to use social media to predict customer behavior.”

Even Webtrends (www.webtrends.com), a pioneer in the web analytics industry, was hesitant about how to incorporate the technology internally. Bruce Kenny, the company’s vice president of engineering and hosted operations, said leaping into social media on the workforce side wasn’t an easy decision for his executive peers, who worried about product confidentiality, brand image and employee productivity issues. Despite that, Kenny’s division became the pilot group for an internal collaboration software. Now, he said, he can’t imagine working without it. 

“We still don’t have a formal ROI, but I can tell you we are doing our releases early; there are no longer walls in knowledge between engineering and sales,” he said. “In the two years we’ve been using this approach, our agility and speed to make decisions (or adjustments) is the fastest I’ve seen in my career in a tech company. This is truly a competitive advantage for us.”

Generator Group is an integrated talent management services firm delivering executive search and talent management consulting to brands in apparel, footwear, hardgoods and softgoods, retail and more. For more information about the group’s work or working with it, go to www.generatorgroup.net.

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