Date: 01/11/11 Duration: 00:25:53

In this podcast Neil Morrison, Group HR Director at Random House, Richard Sealey, Director at Foviance and Alison Chisnell of Informa share their experiences of recognising the value of social media to their organisations’ success.

PHILIPPA LAMB: These days social media is part and parcel of the fabric of our lives. It’s connected us to our friends, families and current events in ways that we couldn’t have imagined even decade ago. But at work the impact of social media and its use has been less clear cut. Some organisations jumped on the bandwagon straightaway, others were more reluctant and some still see the whole thing as a total waste of time. In the early days many employees were banned outright from using the likes of Facebook and Twitter at work but this is fast changing fast now and more and more organisations are beginning to understand the real potential of social media in the workplace.

In this podcast we’re going to be asking how organisations are making social media work for them and what is HR’s role should be, both as individual professionals developing careers, and as leaders of the social media revolution in house.

Let’s kick off with an outfit that's really embracing social media, the publishers Random House. Here’s the HR Director, Neil Morrison.

NEIL MORRISON: Our approach is what I would describe as organic and so we've got a large number of Twitter accounts for individuals, for brands, for companies and they all use it in very different ways. So children’s books for example will be engaging with lots of bloggers that are interested in kids’ books. We use it for authors, sharing news about what’s being published, where they’re touring, or even things like Stardoll which is a social networking site for teenage girls where we published a book into Stardoll, completely free so it was a chapter a day, had a massive reaction following the characters, talking about the characters etc. etc. and then obviously that leads into traditional publishing ventures.

PL: Interesting so you’re using it to directly market, tell people stuff that's happening but also to generate chat, comment, buzz?

NM: Absolutely so children’s books get bloggers together every now and then and they’ll show them what they’re planning on, they’ll ask them their thoughts around what they prefer, which jackets they prefer. So it’s very much two-way rather than just this kind of transmit, transmit, transmit of information to people.

PL: Social media infiltrates almost every part of Random House. It’s woven into their mind set but of course not everyone’s at that stage yet and many other organisations are dubious about exactly how social media might enhance their business.

Richard Sedley is Director at customer experience consultancy Foviance, as well as being the course director for social media at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Through his many big brand clients, he’s gained a very clear understanding of the way companies are approaching social media now.

RICHARD SEDLEY: In my experience, most of the organisations I deal with have a kind of superficial enthusiasm towards it. Most organisations have decided they want to embrace social media and then when they actually come to doing the main nitty gritty element of it they have some real problems with that. Sometimes it’s around the governance, usually it’s around how the fact that they’re not set up internally in order to be able to take advantage of these things. They often caught completely unawares. I've worked with a number of clients that have come to me saying, “We want to start to work in the social media space, how do we step into it? We’re not doing anything at the moment,” and then they’re completely bowled over by the fact that actually they’re already there and they had no idea. Normally in a couple of different ways. Firstly because most of their staff are probably doing stuff anyway and then secondly if you take something like LinkedIn as an example you only need three people from your company to be on LinkedIn and you have a profile page as a company. And most of the companies don’t even know that and so therefore you've got this kind of dead space, but also an opportunity they’re not taking advantage of.

PL: It seems pretty old fashioned to be banning employees from using sites like Facebook, or Twitter during working hours, some organisations still do it but in Richard’s view life is so saturated with social media now that trying to ban it from the workplace is pointless.

RS: The reality is that what happens is you then push things outside of your control. So you push things onto Smartphones for example. So I was working with a financial services bank that were saying, “None of our staff are allowed to comment in social media on any of the financial discussions.” We did a quick piece of research which showed them that actually they are. And then they said, “Well they’re probably doing it in their own time,” and then you look at the date stamps on this stuff and it’s actually during the day. And all of this stuff is occurring during the day via Smartphones and completely outside of the control of a lot of the businesses.

PL: So the debate has been forcibly moved on from one of control and containment and a growing number of organisations are rethinking their acceptable usage policy and freeing up their employees to use social media as they see fit. For example, the New York Times social media policy is short and sweet, reading simply ‘Don’t be a moron’. Now that might be apocryphal but it neatly makes the point that nowadays it’s got to be about educating and then trusting people to behave sensibly. Here’s Neil Morrison from Random House.

NM: So we don’t have a strategy. We don’t say, “This is how it’s going to be done,” and this is why you’re going to use it and how you’re going to use it.” What we do is we educate people, so we provide them with the understanding of how the tools work, you then provide them with open userships, so we don’t ban sites, we have free Wi-Fi so people can use it on their Smartphones etc. and then allow them to experiment and understand that sometimes things will go wrong and that's okay and you don’t suddenly close down the barriers.

PL: So you don’t have any boundaries at all?

NM: We don’t have any boundaries. We have legal guidelines, so we explain to people what the legal context is but we don’t have any boundaries around usage. I'm a great believer if you trust people they generally do the right thing and our business is one that is moving into digital at a rate of knots so not engaging with social media would be just foolish and so teaching people and enabling them to use it themselves is the only way to go. We can’t control it. You can’t control social media.

PL: Informa is a conference and niche publishing company working for the maritime, legal, and insurance industries. Alison Chisnell is HR director for business information, one of the two large publishing divisions. She’s part of a team introducing social media right across the company.

ALISON CHISNELL: Informa as a whole I would not say is a trailblazer for social media but what we have been doing, which has been quite effective, is just being really open minded about it. So we've let people access it, we add Twitter and Facebook, to LinkedIn. We’ve encouraged people to use it, particularly to gain more community feel around the various publications and that's been quite successful, albeit in quite a sort of small scale way. So we've sort of dabbled, dipped our toe in the water if you like, particularly around finding out how we can maximise the benefit of it but we've still got quite a long way to go, I think.

PL: Alison hasn’t been using social media in a professional capacity for that long, but already she’s an emphatic evangelist.

AC: I use it to network with other people, very strong networking community, particularly on Twitter because it uses hash tags, there's a hash tag called, ‘Connecting HR,’ which is quite a vibrant HR community and collective, which is a great thing to be involved in. I also use it to research information, to keep up to date. I read a lot of blogs; there are quite a few HR blogs out there, both here and in the US. It’s a really great way of finding out bite size information that's really relevant and up to date.

PL: And you are in transmit mode aren’t you? You have a blog yourself?

AC: I do have a blog yes.

PL: Why do you do that?

AC: I never thought I would do it. The main reason why I started to do it was because I wanted to find my voice really and it sounds a very strange thing to say but I have found through the process of articulating, from writing things down and articulating things that I've been considering and thinking about it’s also been a great way of having other people interact with those thoughts, adding to them and I get lots of comments that are often far better than the actual blogs themselves.

PL: And how does your employer feel about it? Are they happy?

AC: They’re very happy. I mean in fairness, with any of these things, I'm always very mindful, you have to be mindful about what you tweet, you have to be mindful about what you write about in a blog. I would never write anything in my blog that I wouldn’t be happy for my CEO to read or for any of my other colleagues or any other employee to read.

PL: Like Alison, Neil Morrison leads by example too. He also has his own blog, posting ideas, issues, thoughts and conundrums online.

NM: I like to see the debates that start from ideas and I think there’s one thing expressing views, we can all do that, when you put a view out into the public domain what you find is that you have people who build on it, people who challenge it, people who completely disregard it and then that educates you, it educates other people that read it. It helps you hone your thinking and I think that's all good personal development. It’s not about profile. I think there are much easier ways to get profile than writing a blog you can go and speak at conferences, you can go and write for the magazines or whatever it is, it’s more about the community conversation that then develops around a piece and that can be on a blog, it can be on Twitter. I had a conversation about the national minimum wage this week on Twitter which in 140 characters isn’t easy but for me I think it’s a way that I develop myself and it’s a way that I can contribute to a conversation that other people are having as well.

PL: Social media offers us all a free platform for knowledge sharing. Neil and Alison’s blogs are obvious examples of this, both of them focus on collaboration and information-sharing.

NM: It crosses cultural boundaries, it crosses international boundaries so I know of a lot of people in the US who have very different ideas, very different issues, some ahead of us, some behind us and so yes it breaks everything down between companies, between cultures, between countries.

PL: Quite apart from what Random House does as a business do you find this collaborative approach improves systems and activities within the company so that people solve each other’s problems because they’re collaborating across social media networks?

NM: Absolutely and I've seen this, I mean particularly within the HR field where people have got questions and you respond, “Yes I can help you with that,” or they need anything from a simple policy, like “Has anyone got a policy on X, Y and Z,” through to, “How would you manage this circumstance? What would you do in this situation?” and you’ve got available a whole field of people there who can give you their views or insight. A lot of lawyers are on Twitter as well and I think you can get some pretty good free legal advice from people in situations. So yeah.

PL: I mean this seems to be a big benefit that people are really using a great deal and this is across all industries and all countries, this kind of open source. There's lots of good information out there, lots of good people who will tell you stuff for free. I mean obviously there are quality issues around that I suppose aren’t there but it’s handy?

NM: Yeah obviously I mean it’s the same as if you go to the pub and ask people, “Where would you go to have your car serviced?” you’re going to get different views and you’re different opinions and you need to make a choice on that but I think the ability to have that conversation, there's sites like Focus in the US where you can ask a question and experts can give you an answer on it. You can then decide what you do with that information but it’s not going to harm you to get different views and different opinions.

PL: Although Twitter has passed the 100 million users mark, it’s still quite misunderstood but Alison Chisnell has had a bit of a Twitter epiphany of late.

AC: It’s been quite a revelation for me in the past year or so of how Twitter can be very useful and beneficial on a professional level, so I think a lot of people still kind of associate it with celebrities tweeting and it being very kind of fluffy…

PL: Gossip isn’t it?

AC: ...there’s plenty of that going on. I would be lying to say otherwise but actually there's a lot of professional organisations, a lot of professionals who are really using it to communicate to each other and a lot of HR people as well. There’s a very strong HR community on Twitter.

PL: As Alison says you can find this community by typing in hash tag Connecting HR into Twitter and you’ll find her right there. Using social media like Twitter, LinkedIn and all the rest, has two big benefits – firstly you can develop your company’s reputation and secondly there’s a strong element of personal development and if you leave one role you take your network along to the next and so forth right over your career.

AC: It’s been quite interesting to see where people have been looking for other roles but they often get a lot of support, particularly from the HR community on Twitter and the connecting HR community that they will tweet out about the individuals who are looking for roles, they’ll use their own network of contacts. And certainly when I've been recruiting HR people I've also tweeted about it and I've had some good CVs through from my Twitter contacts. And I haven't yet made my first social media hire but that’s, you know, I had a couple that went through to second interview so it’s only a matter of time I’m sure (laughs).

PL: Making this work for your company doesn’t have to be all about the big social networks like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, it can be much closer to home on the company intranet, for instance. At Aviva, they using social media within their intranet discussion forums to speed things up internal company processes. Here’s Richard Sedley.

RS: They’ve got low level innovation happening in there in a very insightful and useful way. I was talking to someone I know there who was giving me an example of how someone was complaining on the forums about the people directory saying that, “I can find the person and there's kind of four or five clicks before I can actually get to their email address and then there's another four clicks before I can get to their telephone number.” Someone within the IT team saw this, the next day replied to the post saying, “I stayed late last night and I've adjusted that,” and then suddenly it’s changed.

PL: So collaboration within organisations?

RS: Exactly but if you’d imagine that in a more formal process they'd have had to put a change request going through, it would have gone through up one line manager, across the organisation, down another line manager and the whole thing could have taken a minimum I would have thought of a month if not a couple of years to action those kind of things because they kind of get lost in the soup of other projects.

PL: Social media is proving transformative for many organisations but there can be downsides. I asked Richard to give me the pros and cons.

RS: The more immediate pros are you can scale quickly. I think you can amplify. I think you can engage with audiences both internally and externally to your organisation in a way that you maybe haven't been able to do before. So if you’re looking for change then I think it can be a very good thing. If you’re thinking about the downside to this it might be the case that individuals within your organisation begin to get profiles and then they move on. So being able to make sure that you manage individual profiles in relation to the overall company brand I think is important. I think unless stuff is managed properly you can have some PR disasters. There's a number of organisations that have had all sorts of different problems with this kind of stuff but really most of those to me seem to be about that they haven't got in place either physical or just policy structures which prevent some of these things from happening.

PL: Random House has freed up their social media policies and everyone is encouraged to have a go and explore the options but the freedom can come at a price.

NM: The downside is that sometimes people don’t quite use it in the way that you’d want. So an example would be they’re tweeting as a brand but they can come across as a person instead of the brand and you can get that confusion between what they’re really there for. So if you’re tweeting as Jonathan Cape, for example, then people are following you because they’re interested in Jonathan Cape, not necessarily the person that's tweeting behind the scenes.

PL: It’s the brand not the person?

NM: That's right whereas if I'm tweeting as Neil Morrison people are following me because it’s Neil Morrison and not because it’s necessarily Random House HR Director.

PL: So that is about training isn’t it, education?

NM: It’s education and that's absolutely critical.

PL: They have a similar issue at Informa and as a result they have put in place some informal guidelines.

AC: Where the debate has moved away from control, and I think rightly so, what we have found as an organisation is that we need some policies in place, albeit light touch policies that just help us to maintain our own intellectual property really. So that for example if somebody has set up a LinkedIn group that is very much around a certain publication, if they’ve done it for example in their own name well when they leave and they go to a competitor they can’t really take it with them we’d need to have some rules around it that it belongs to a company.

PL: So how do you police that?

AC: We’ve got some guidelines in place. So, for example, in that particular circumstance we have some guidelines around, if it is connected to a certain publication then it’s not done in an individual’s name it’s done in the publication’s name. There always have to be two users who have passwords to it and have the access to it. There’s just some kind of commonsense guidelines really that just mean that it’s not all about the individuals in certain cases it’s around the publications but there's obviously a line that has to be drawn.

PL: It’s interesting you mention this because this has cropped up before in the course of our conversations around social media, this business of being very clear about who is talking...

AC: Mm that's true.

PL: …whether it’s an individual or whether it’s the organisation and indeed the issue of who people respond to from outside the organisation. So if you are the person who is actively blogging, actively tweeting they’ll come to you but of course you may not be the most senior person. So have you come across issues there that it’s slightly unsettling the hierarchy at work at all?

AC: I mean there is an element of that. I do think that the people that I have met seem fairly cognisant of the fact that we all operate in our own organisational hierarchies and that just because they’ve heard of one person that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re running the whole show.

PL: So how to get your arms around this if it all feels a bit big and scary? Well, first, a warning. Many organisations have jumped on the band wagon without knowing what they’re trying to achieve. They ask people to follow them on Twitter, they’ve got the Facebook page, but as Richard explained that just this isn’t enough.

RS: There’s the classic example of “we need a Twitter strategy” and so therefore it normally gets given to the person who is the most experienced which tends to often be the youngest person in the room and in those kind of circumstances it’s hardly surprising that some of these things are a little bit kind of directionless and you often have a few of the kind of mistakes that take place. I mean personally I don't think you even need a social media strategy. I wouldn’t be upset with having a customer strategy or a marketing strategy, any of those kind of things, I think social media in the same sort of way as the telephone is used to be part of those things. Who has a telephone strategy? Probably none of us right? So I think the ability to be able to bring social media into the kind of business processes is probably a necessity now?

PL: Should organisations be looking at specific areas in terms of they should be looking at recruitment, direct marketing, brand management, whatever it is, and then thinking, ‘How can we use social media? How can we integrate social media into all that?’ or should it be the other way round? Should they be looking at social media and saying, “How can I use Facebook?”

RS: I think pretty much for all of these things if I'm honest I would start with a digital and social media approach to begin with, so start with the people that you’re currently interacting with. And that's from a marketing perspective to employment, to recruitment, it could be any number of these areas. That doesn’t mean that the thing that you end up with in terms of a campaign, for instance in recruitment, is going to end up just in the digital space but I've seen so many times people put recruitment campaigns and then say, “You know what we could do something in social media. You know what we could do something with digital.” And that's every time it goes wrong as a result of that because people haven't thought through how they’re going to integrate things. So I would say start with the digital space, start with the social media space and build out your campaign from there.

PL: For people who aren’t that deep into social media as users right now they’ll listen to this and think, ‘This sounds huge. How do I get my arms around this? How do I monitor, how do I make sure my people are doing what they should be doing? How do I see what the advantage to my business is?’ How do they do that? Are we talking about a whole department now that organisations will need to keep across this or is this something that everyone needs to be trained to do within the organisation?

RS: I think everyone needs to understand certain elements of it most definitely.

PL: So training is key?

RS: So I would say training is definitely key. I think that some of the examples that are in other businesses and what you’re starting to see with a number of businesses is they’re starting to share the examples of where stuff went wrong. So I think there's a kind of learning process of how to do things and how not to do things. I mean I'm a big fan of education in these kind of situations. Not everyone is going to want to be constantly interacting on different types of social media but I think that we need to understand that the way we do business is becoming more social.

PL: HR needs to consider its own rules and responsibilities in this. Here’s Richard Sedley.

RS: If you want to be a player in this space inside your organisation then you have to be someone who embraces it. You have to be someone who is at the forefront of thinking how to do things. You have to be a leader is really what I'm saying.

PL: So HR need to educate themselves in this area?

RS: They need to educate themselves and they need to be in a position where they embrace those within their organisation who have already taken a lead and become their allies, really.

NM: HR people should play a very different role in social media than the normal role so they can be seen as the controllers, the police, the enforcers and I actually think they should be the engagers, the educators, the encouragers, when it comes to social media and you can’t do that unless you know what’s going on because other people will be thinking that you somehow don’t understand, or are behind the curve, and if you've got, you know, we have 1200 people in the UK, almost all of them will be on some form of social media or will interact with some form of social media. So that's your entire workforce. So of course you've got to understand what’s going on and of course you've got to follow the developments because otherwise how can you educate people about it in the business. So making sure that people understand the latest developments, they understand the basic skills of usage, you know, it’s amazing there's, I don't know what is it, half a billion users on Facebook or whatever it is and yet some people will sit at it and just not know where to go so you've got to help them to understand how to do it and not just take it as a done deal that everyone knows and we have an older generation who might not be as comfortable with the ideas of social media and the fact that information’s out there.

PL: Yes I was going to ask you that because presumably there is an age divide here because no one under the age of 35 needs to be told how to use social media do they?

NM: Well I think they do actually.

PL: Do they?

NM: I think they do. I think there is a split. I was looking at a statistic on Twitter’s growing users are an older demographic rather than a younger demographic.

PL: Yes it’s 100 million members on Twitter now.

NM: It’s incredible I think whatever age you are, whatever stage you are there's nothing wrong with actually refreshing your skills.

PL: Sure enough Alison has got her work cut out for her. She’s been training people at all levels of the organisation.

AC: We train them on setting up blogs, particularly the marketers we train on social media and that's starting the seep through other parts of the organisation too and actually very recently my CEO asked me to see if I could deliver some training to the board on using Twitter and social media which is quite interesting. I haven't done it yet but it will be exciting to do.

PL: Though publishing is clearly ahead of the curve when it comes to using social media, this is a revolution that is likely to impact on every single sector with big potential to enhance business. Neil Morrison.

NM: I absolutely believe there’s no Plan B. It’s happening and I was looking at a statistic that there's something like, in an hour, 5000 new blogs start up on average, in every hour. So there is a tide that you can’t stop. The technology will change and maybe the technology will develop but the concept of people creating and sharing content on the internet, isn’t going to go away.

PL: If you’d like to delve deeper into all this we're holding our own Social Media Conference on 7th December in London. You can find details on the website:

If you’re interested in continuing the debate visit the CIPD Communities page and the LinkedIn discussion group.

Next time we’ll be looking at the future challenges facing the HR profession in 2012 and the impact of the Olympics. Join me then.