How To Make Social Software The Lifeblood Of Employee Engagement

At a company where I was involved in an internal communications audit, some internal social media (ISM) features had been bolted onto existing communication channels. Employees didn’t exactly flock to these bolt-ons, which let them rate and leave comments on articles published to the intranet. Most articles attracted little if any engagement. Those that did tended to be about seemingly unimportant topics, like parking or the cafeteria.

The company leadership took the lack of comments to substantive articles about big issues as a sign that employees didn’t care. Employees told a different story. It wasn’t that they didn’t care; it was they they didn’t see a connection between this big issues and their work. Without understanding that connection, they didn’t knwow what they could contribute to an article. They found these articles interesting. In most cases, though, they didn’t see a connection between themselves and the subject.

To expect a typical article to be anything other than one-size-fits all in its approach is unrealistic. That’s the whole premise of mass media, which has driven employee communications since its earliest days. Imagine the length of an article that explained what a big issue means to a process engineer, a human resources representative, a procurement officer, an accounts payable team member, a supply chain staffer, a lathe operator, and every other job in the company. Such an article would make be ridiculously long (and impossible to write). Crafting separate articles for each class of jobs in a company also would be a hopeless undertaking.

At the same time the company’s leaders lamented the lack of employee engagement around these high-level issues, employees told us they felt disconnected from the organization.

For employees to get engaged with a topic, it has to be relevant to the groups where they identify their membership in the organization. For front-line employees in particular, there are only three: their daily work teams, the project teams to which they belong, and the supervisor-employee relationship. That’s where social software can make a difference. It can’t be bolted on, however. It needs to become systemic. Sadly, most organizations exert most of their efforts deploying software and precious little supporting its adoption. As a result, according to multiple studies, only a handful of employees use their companies’ social tools even just once a month.

When adoption is a priority, employees don’t see social software as an extracurricular activity. Instead, it becomes the primary channel for communication. By way of example, let’s revisit the organization where leaders assumed the lack of conversation about issues important to them was a sign of employee disinterest. In focus group after focus group, employees pointed to one particular piece of research they sorely needed on a regular basis but could never get. During the final session, one of the participants said, “That information is distributed every week in a mailing list.” Three others sat upright and said, in perfect unison, “Mailing list? What mailing list?”

Imagine, instead, that the department producing that information attached it to an update in the internal social network. Anybody following the department would get a notificiation that the data had been shared. If Joe knows Mary needs that information, he could share it with her. Upon getting it, she could opt to follow the account herself so she would now be notified whenever new information was released.

In several organizations, even those high-level articles are being shared via the writer’s account instead of the magazine-style listing of articles that grace the home pages of so many intranets. You might think the lack of visibility of these articles would lead to fewer employees reading them. In fact, readership has tripled in some of these organizations and quadrupled in others. That’s because employees are inclined to read material shared by people they have followed. They followed that individual in the first place because they knew she’s a source of information that’s relevant and worthwhile.

If team leader Susan reads one of those high-level articles, she might share her thoughts on the impact of the story on her team. Since the members of her team undoubtedly follow her, they get information relevant to them, along with a link to the original story. These employees feel connected.

Some pundits have proclaimed social software a failure, but the real failure is in the adoption phase. When the right tool is introduced so employees understand why they should embrace it — while simultaneously abandoning the old, comfortable way of doing things — magic can happen and employee engagement and satisfaction can soar.