Friday, May 15, 2009

Social Networking at Work

Mapping social relationships is a fairly new possibility that has emerged with the proliferation of social networking applications like Facebook and Twitter, which have emerged in conjunction with growing globalization and the emergence of virtual teams. At a time when social competence is recognized as a key ingredient for superior business performance and project team members may sit in different corners of the world, we also see the emergence of widely used social networking applications that could measure and analyze social interactions. It’s not really surprising that a person’s social index score has suddenly become an interesting target for speculation.

Recently a popular HCM blog discussed the possibility of companies measuring a ‘social index’ for employees and using this to encourage social collaboration. The idea seems to be that the pressure of having a low social score would help motivate people to network more. Some of the posted comments were quite interesting, ranging from practical advice about how a company might measure social scores to one joking comment about how being popular in high school is not necessarily a predictor of professional success.

In other words, while it is true that successful people often have good social skills, social skills in themselves are not predictors of professional competence or job performance.

Additionally, although mapping out employee networking relationships may provide useful data points, such as pointing to communication bottlenecks, a high social index in itself can mean different things. For example, a high level of interaction along a particular communication channel may point to an extremely helpful, mentoring individual, a relentless gatekeeper or a gossiping slacker. Conversely, someone with relatively few interaction points may represent a communication problem or they may work in an area that requires little interaction. It is also possible that this person does such an effective job communicating that no one has any questions for them.

Having said that, let’s assume we all agree that social networking can be a valuable tool in the workplace and we want to encourage it. One possible way to facilitate social networking in the workplace is to leverage existing social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. This is appealing because these platforms are open and using them doesn’t require proprietary investment. Additionally, open networking platforms open up the possibility of managing lifetime relationships with people that go beyond traditional employment relationships.

However, although the availability and popularity of existing social networking solutions may smell like opportunity to those who hope to harness the power of social networking, companies that want employees to embrace social networks to improve their productivity they will need to do more than rely on the innate appeal of flashy Web 2.0 applications and passively tap into existing social networks. They will need to think about how these applications should be used in a business setting and provide incentives for employees to network more – and the best incentive is that they actually get value out of the social network in the form of positive work relationships or useful information.

The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating article about social network analysis.* A company asked employees who they talk to and who they turn to for help and drew a map of these interactions that clearly showed gaps in communication. The next step was to remove barriers to communication and provide more exposure to employees with fewer interaction points. Social network analysis helped lower costs and improve communication for this company but they did more than just passively measure interactions – they also talked to people and took proactive steps to improve communication channels in order to achieve these results.
In other words, social networking may provide some interesting possibilities for improved performance but the real value lies in establishing and incenting communication channels that enable people to connect and work together more effectively.

* Engineering Firm Charts Ties: Social-Mapping Method Helps MWH Uncover Gaps,’ Dvorak, Phred, Jan 26, 2009.

Fact or Myth: Recruiting is Less Important in Economic Downturn

Although gross job creation remains fairly consistent regardless of economic conditions and many companies continue to hire, either consistently or sporadically, many companies have hiring freezes and are moving to outsourced recruiting to cut costs. These companies may be right to focus on cutting costs and/or retaining their critical employees rather than on new recruiting strategies.

Nonetheless, as Dr. John Sullivan points out in his article ‘Managing Recruiting During Economic Downturn: The Top 10 Action Steps to Take’, in volatile economic times companies must prepare not only for inevitable hiring freezes but also periodic spurts of growth. And it goes without saying that when it’s time to hire someone, it’s less expensive if you can find and onboard the right candidate(s) quickly. Moreover, during economic slumps recruiting administrative activities tend to increase as companies are bombarded with resumes from laid-off employees.

Also, while it may be true that the traditional recruiting task of filling seats is less critical during economic downturn, there is much more to strategic recruiting than just filling seats. For example:

Workforce Planning – When it comes to defining medium- to long-term recruiting strategies, it never hurts to take a good hard look at which people and competencies you have today, analyze turnover and projected retirement rates to determine what gaps you have and will have and take a crack at estimating what skills will be needed over the longer term to keep the company successful.

Retention – Retention is a key component of internal recruiting, at least to the extent that it’s harder to recruit someone internally once they’re gone. Recently there has been some dispute about whether retention is less difficult during tough economic times. To a certain extent it is easier – people are more grateful to have a job and the plight of the unemployed tends to put small grievances into perspective. Additionally, while it is true that top people can always find a job, even they hesitate to leave financially sound companies in a fragile economy. But long term, not worrying about retention strategies will backfire when the economy picks up again.

Social Networking – Although you may not be hiring today, you still want to keep an active pipeline of desirable candidates for your company. This includes not only people who are good fits today, but also potential future good fits (such as students, interns and even former employees). There are many ways to do this today that were not thinkable as little as a decade ago, including using professional networking platforms like LinkedIn. And recruiters are not the only ones with new tools to stay connected. Employees also enjoy an unprecedented level of retained connections, which means that they are not only more likely to refer former colleagues but also come up with their current contact details.

Branding – When times are tough, security becomes more important and it’s more challenging to lure desirable candidates away from their current jobs. Companies that want to recruit high performing employees should focus on creating brand awareness that inspires trust and a desire to be part of your fabulous company culture. Thanks to popular adoption of relatively new technologies there are myriad inexpensive ways to do this available today, including social networking platforms, YouTube and even (if you were being strategic all along) reaching out to former employees.

Buying Bulk
– Although this analogy is not perfect, people shop at discounted bulk megastores like Costco in order to save money in the long-term. The idea is that they buy more than they specifically need, and pay a bit more than if they had purchased less, but over time save money. And there is something to be said for proactive hiring during a downturn in order to satisfy future workforce needs because it may be cheaper than developing internal skills. This may sound a bit cynical, but although recruiting and onboarding cost money, so does training.

Regardless of economic circumstances, activities such as workforce planning, retaining critical skills, maintaining relationships with past, present and future talent, creating positive brand awareness and cutting recruiting administration costs make sense. These strategies will stand companies in better stead long-term than knee-jerk downsizing and cessation of all recruiting activities.

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