Make Social Technology Count In Your Workplace

A friend, who was involved in developing early word processing systems (imagine a world without Microsoft MSFT +0.44% Office or Open Office), was talking about the productivity-improvement claims made by fans of word processing. I’m like WHAT decade are we in? Smiles. I’m GASPing for air. By moving offices and workers away from typewriters, Dictaphone machines and stenography, businesses were supposed to see huge productivity gains. Employees would be empowered and secretaries (try finding a few of those today—know what I mean?) would have time to work on projects of higher value to companies. There would be no reliance on White-out, steno pads or other mostly-dead products and everyone would be freed from the drudgery of office work. The payoff for companies and leaders? The holy trinity of time-savings, cost-reduction and ROI!

What really happened? We all – more or less willingly – took on responsibility for our own busy work, and a whole work classification was eliminated.

There are no “secretaries” any more – Phew. There are a few executive assistants, reserved mostly for the V and C-suite. This is something my baby boomer friend regrets; early in his career he had a secretary, Jean, who could type 105 words a minute with no errors and take dictation at 90 words a minute. She kept his schedule, remembered everything, and shielded him from useless meetings and other distractions. Now he’s on his own, working without a net, like most of us, in a world where notions of value have changed. What gives?

We’re seeing a similar shift now in the world of work with social technologies and social media tools.

From Yammer to wikis, talent management software and enterprise instant-messaging platforms like Salesforce Chat and Microsoft Lync, businesses are structuring a workplace where most interchanges are not person-to-person but are instead mediated by technology. This shift has been valued at upwards of $1.3 trillion by no less an authority than McKinsey, which studied the use and impact of social tech in four sectors: professional services, retail financial services, packaged goods and advanced manufacturing.

Not surprisingly, McKinsey sees a large percentage of the value of social tech coming from two sources: improved communications and collaboration. These benefits will be realized internally, as employees collaborate, and externally, as consumers interact with brands.

But value isn’t something you get by buying technology, closing your eyes and making a wish. Value is real only if it can be measured. Further, it’s arguably possible to extract value from technology only when your work culture understands and accepts the reasoning for adopting the technology, which requires employees to trust the company and its managers. Without leadership trust, in other words, value cannot be calculated.

So leaders and employees unite and celebrate! Here are five things to put in place if you hope to extract value from social technology in your workplace:

1) Define what value means to your company as a leader. For example, is there more value in social tech-mediated collaboration than there is in face-to-face meetings? In which circumstances or use cases is the statement true or false? At which employee grade is it true or false? Is your notion of value organizational (e.g., human factors), financial (e.g., measureable ROI) or process (e.g., time savings)? Create different timelines for each vector to see where you’ll experience a value bump first.

2) Create a value measurement methodology. If you’re measuring collaboration, for example, tie hard costs to it: less travel, less time to complete a task, more people on board with an idea or initiative.

3) Determine which tools, processes and policies support your definition of value, and which must be changed. Email may not support your definition of value in the above model, nor may in-person meetings. Processes designed to support building teams will need to be revised so teams can be constructed virtually among people who’ve never met F2F. Policies requiring performance reviews to be conducted by team members may need to be adjusted, and so on. This may requires a close look at many policies, which is time-consuming; factor that into your value equations.

4) Create a link between your notion of leadership value and the value of employee trust. This will be tough, but one place to start is to create a value statement describing the organizational value of employee trust. Then look for the deltas in your model of the value of social tech. You may want to bring in an HR or organizational consultant to help structure the examination if you need help from the outside.

5) Socialize your expectations of the value to be realized from social technology. Poll employees to see if they buy in. If they don’t, you’ll gain not only understanding of why there may be resistance to using social tech tools, as well as a roadmap of policies and procedures which may require change for the organization to realize value from social tech.

We’re just beginning to see the disruptive effects of social technology and social media at large. Very exciting times in the world of work for leaders and employees alike. Will it destroy whole job categories? It remains to be seen. Will it deliver value? I vote yes.

What about you? Is your leadership or employee style one the embraces parts or all of this?

This article was first published on Forbes on 9/16/12

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