sparks of light
Forward-thinking organizations are turning to the simple hashtag to grow and measure employee engagement. PHOTO: Kamesh Vedula

The origin of the hashtag can be traced to identifying key words in computer code.

From there it evolved to tagging topics or groups in early chat rooms.

This bottom up approach to categorizing information is in stark contrast to the traditional top down taxonomic approaches that could not have managed the explosion of information dissemination facilitated by the internet. 

Hashtags Identify Trends

The rise of the hashtag to public prominence coincided with its adoption by Twitter users.

Hashtags became the vehicle for measuring the degree to which an information topic is disseminating around the world. For news agencies, the ability to identify trending topics has been a boom.

Measuring attention is simply a matter of counting tagged tweets and retweets.

The now ubiquitous hashtag is yet another social media artifact that has seamlessly migrated from consumer land into the enterprise on the back of Enterprise Social Networking (ESN) systems.

Enterprise Adoption of Hashtags

As with its consumer use, internal communications groups adopted hashtags as a way of monitoring the attention paid to the enterprise information they choose to disseminate.

There are limitations, however. Significantly, the enterprise audience is substantially smaller than the Twitter universe; so trending analytics are likely to be less representative.

On the other hand, hashtags have the potential for doing much more for the enterprise than simply monitoring news dissemination — and now an increasing number of organizations are starting to identify more innovative uses for the simple hashtag, including:

  • Tagging key organizational change initiatives
  • Tagging project initiatives
  • Tagging organizational competitions or similar gaming initiatives
  • Tagging success celebrations

Tagging Key Organizational Changes

The first example is potentially game changing. Enterprises today are in continual transformation mode. Significantly, the most common transformations need to be accompanied by the much-maligned "cultural change."

Traditional approaches to large-scale organizational change start with the carefully crafted messages, followed quickly by the ubiquitous focus group meetings, where staff is given the opportunity to contextualize the desired change in their own work environments.

More often than not, progress is glacial and in real danger of being overtaken by the next wave of change.

Today, many forward thinking organizations are looking to leverage technology to help accelerate their organizational change initiatives. Attaching a hashtag to their organizational change messaging is now regularly being used to track "engagement."

The challenge however is that "engagement" in the enterprise context needs to be more than a simple like or even retweet equivalent. 

Engagement means dialogue and discussion of the type that focus groups are designed for. It is only through more intense dialogue, discussion and debate that true engagement can be achieved at all levels of the organization.

Other Ways to Use Hashtags

Other enterprise uses of the hashtag can be to track project initiatives over time. For project sponsors, identifying energy around a project is a leading indicator of progress before any tangible outcomes are measured. The more complex the project, the more important critical conversation amongst team members becomes.

Organizational competitions, celebrating milestones or successful achievements may not provide directly measurable business results. But these can be strong indicators of employee engagement.

A common theme for those organizations regularly acknowledged for their employee engagement success is the fun elements injected into the workplace. For those organizations competing in the war for talent, the ultimate success measure is in staff retention and recruitment success.

Using Tag Analytics to Measure Employee Engagement

The conventional means for assessing the attention a hashtagged topic is gaining is to simply count the number of activities i.e. posts, replies, likes etc., over time.

Simple activity counts however can be misleading when used as a proxy for employee engagement. As mentioned earlier, true engagement needs to be measured through the breadth and depth of the conversations being had.

One becomes "engaged" with a message when one engages in conversation about that message. Below we have mapped the network of conversations around a ‘culture enhancing’ hashtag:

tag analytics

This network represents the people to people interactions had around a hashtag designed to engage staff around a key corporate change, for a single day during its launch.

The circles are participants. The circles are sized by the number of responses received by a poster on the conversation surrounding the topic. Therefore, the largest circles represent whom we call "Catalysts."

Some of these Catalysts have a majority of their connections reciprocated (marked as red lines). We label these people "Engagers"  for leading the conversation around the tagged topic.

The chart below plots the activity levels, together with a relationship measure (average 2-way connections for each participant), used as a proxy for employee engagement:

topic engagement

We can see here that while activity levels have dropped off by week five, the engagement levels are still climbing for at least another five weeks.

This suggests that the discussions have evolved from a larger number of participants having broad based discussions, to a smaller, more cohesive core group having more focussed, deeper discussions.

This is precisely the evolution we would be looking for around a topic targeting behavioral change. This is not the norm, however.

For many other hashtagged topics we have tracked, the engagement levels track the activity levels more closely. If the tagged topic is simply news related, then the engagement levels tend to drop as the news item ages.

Therefore, if your staff treats a tagged behavioral change topic like a news article, then you have a problem.

Limitations of Enterprise Hashtag Analysis

As mentioned earlier, one of the limitations for hashtag analysis inside the enterprise is the limited size of the audience, in comparison to consumer networks. This is exacerbated by an immaturity in use of hashtags by enterprise staff.

Ironically for many organizations, a proactive program is needed to educate and then influence staff to make regular use of hashtags. In the example provided, the hashtag did generate a strong engagement amongst a selected few staff, but clearly far short of an enterprise wide engagement.

What has been achieved however is the identification of a core group of staff that have embraced the topic online. By enrolling the online conversation leaders in off-line organizational change initiatives, the organization can start to more effectively leverage the digital channels in the change initiative, to both amplify and reinforce desired behaviors both online and off.

While enterprise hashtags may not have quite the impact that they had in the consumer environment, with some innovative thinking, they can provide a valuable digital adjunct to your enterprise employee engagement initiatives.