Social Business, Why Human Resources Needs to Move Forward with Social Business
As companies identify more areas where social software can be put to use, the push to launch social software solutions from IT departments and specialty departments grows stronger. Many IT directors see social software as an opportunity to raise their profile, and departments from marketing to product development push adoption driven by their basic goals and responsibilities.

But one department is missing from this clamor, even though social software adoption would appear to be in its best interests. I’m talking about Human Resources (HR).

HR departments have to deal with a number of challenges. On the one hand, they have the Facebook generation employees who automatically bring their social web behavior and work styles with them to the company.

On the other side is a sizable number of 40- to 55-year-old employees. They are part of the email generation and it won’t be long before they retire. It is important to preserve their knowledge and expertise for the company’s future. A 2012 study by Initiative D21 and TNS Infratest identified this generational division and showed that this is exactly what distinguishes how these two age groups work. The first camp wants and demands social software on the job and is used to transparent sharing. The second often refuses to use the social web, even outside of work, and has always relied on e-mail to meet its needs.

Preserving employee expertise is going to be a challenge in both cases. One is moving towards retirement and the other is far more willing to change employers -- unlike their older colleagues, who often stayed with the same company for their entire career.

I see this where I work too. A lot of young coworkers say, “I’ve been here for three, four, five years and I’m ready for something new.” And then they’re gone -- just when they’ve learned the ropes and become productive.

Preserving employee knowledge is not the only area where these rapid turnover rates present challenges for companies; they also need to quickly bring new hires up to speed so they can become productive (a process known as onboarding). And to hold on to them, they need to continue to motivate and educate them. The longer the qualified employees stick around, the more the company will benefit and profit from them. Keeping the most talented workers on board for the long term is becoming one of the most important jobs of HR departments.

Learning Opportunities

HR has to address these issues and social business tools can help them meet the requirements of the modern working world. Social businesses put employees at the center -- and that is one of the oldest and most essential jobs of the HR department. It’s not hard to think of many different areas where HR can leverage the work styles and communication styles of the social age:

  • Leadership and Communication -- Leadership and communication is changing from a patriarchal-hierarchical form to a transparent leadership style that demands involvement. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, for instance communicates IBM’s goals and results through her blog. She invites IBM employees to comment and discuss, and many of them do so very passionately. Another example is communities where employees work together to focus the company on its customers.
  • Recruiting -- At a time when qualified, skilled workers are in dwindling supply, it is extremely important for companies to recruit the right talent. They need a variety of tools to do that, such as attractive, dialogue-oriented career pages.
  • Onboarding -- Once you've found the right talent, you need to train new employees quickly and efficiently so they can become productive as soon as possible. Social software, e-Learning and sharing knowledge and experiences with coworkers play a fundamental role here. The Robinson Club is an excellent example of how a decentralized company can use social software and an employee website to onboard and train new batches of personnel, many of whom only hang around for a season or two.
  • Ongoing learning -- Training doesn’t end with onboarding. These days change and ongoing learning are the norm, and that means you need to be adding knowledge and sharing experiences with other employees to stay up to date.
  • Employee motivation -- Motivated employees are productive employees. This fact gets overlooked far too often, although many managers and people in HR now realize how necessary it is. Gamification can help motivate and hold on to employees instead of having them quickly disappear.
  • Talent management -- The focus is shifting to bringing talent into the company, observing them and continually supporting them in order to both achieve maximum productivity and keep them on board.
  • Networking and finding experts -- Again and again we see how important and helpful it is when we are able to easily identify and contact experts within the company. It enables us to solve questions and problems faster and more efficiently. Forming communities with employees that are in the same field or who have the same interests so they can share information about “their” subject increases efficiency (not to mention fun and motivation) even more.
  • Knowledge management -- Preserving in-house expertise is hardly a new idea; knowledge management has been a hot topic for decades now. But social software and, most importantly, new ways of thinking are finally helping to significantly improve its chances of success. Young employees in particular are much more inclined to share information freely, as it is second nature to them. And many older employees who use social networks are now doing the same thing in the corporate context. This means that today we have a much better chance of preserving knowledge at every level.
  • Innovation management -- Company suggestion boxes have been around for a long time. Social software tools offer completely new ways of offering suggestions and working on them as a group in order to generate innovations.
  • Change management -- Finally, we have change management, which is defined as supporting gradual change at the enterprise and individual level. It is one of the most important tasks on this list. Here too, the new cultural techniques help a lot with intelligently implementing and supporting change.

These are just rough sketches of a few of the areas where HR professionals can put social software to use. Other issues have emerged from studies such as "Innovationsfelder der digitalen Welt: Bedürfnisse von übermorgen," released by Münchener Kreis. The study looks at the wants and needs of today’s employees, from their desire to share their experiences and co-determine processes, to achieving a healthy work-life balance. In the age of social business, HR departments should and must play a more central role as employee advocates while also promoting and leveraging these new cultural techniques and work methods. Niall Cook summed it up very nicely:

In short, HR represents the voice of the employee when it comes to corporate social networking, in the same way that marketing represents the voice of the customer when it comes to social media.

And that’s why I believe HR has a key role to play in understanding and applying social technologies to support and change organisational culture.”

Title image courtesy of PaulPaladin (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more by Stefan in Why Germany Needs to Become a Social Business