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Can in-house social networks work?

Matthew Chittock

As Facebook launches an ‘at work’ version to aid businesses with internal comms – is it time for managers to embrace corporate social networks? Matt Chittock investigates

If your role involves trying to keep employees off social media in the office, prepare for a shock. This January Facebook soft-launched Facebook At Work – a version of the social network aimed squarely at the workplace.

Trend-watchers won’t be surprised. PwC has long predicted that in-house social media will be used to share ideas and organise projects within companies of the future. And start-ups like the private social network Yammer, have already tried to get businesses on-board.

Currently being tried out ‘with selected partners’ before a full launch later this year, Facebook at Work offers employees the chance to create a professional persona and add posts that only colleagues within the same company can see and respond to.

Lyndon Wingrove, director of capabilities and consulting at Thales Learning and Development, says that it’s easy to see the potential benefits of systems like Facebook At Work for businesses. “It’s an easy way to enable people to communicate, to connect and to share information without relying on email and phone,” he says. “In a sense it drives the ‘do it when you can’ and ‘do it when you’re able to’ attitude rather than having fixed meetings. So it enables more flexibility and more interaction at your own pace. In our business we’re looking at it as having very definite potential because it enables us to connect large groups very quickly and easily.”

For millennial employees in particular, Facebook At Work sounds like a no-brainer. After all, under-40s are experts at organising their social lives through Facebook – so using it as tool to manage projects, add input and schedule meetings doesn’t seem like such a stretch.

“What I’ve seen about the generation just coming out of university is that they want stuff now,” says Wingrove. “So, social media is a way to enable them to be able to interact, when they’re ready and at the right pace for them, rather than relying on somebody else’s pace that might be different.”

However, as managers know, most companies aren’t wholly made up of millennials. Wingrove points out that his company spans five generations. Some of the knowledge lies solely with older employees, yet they could be the least willing to embrace such a system.

Businesses keen to use in-house social media face other issues too. Getting buy-in from the entire company is one, as is working out what’s appropriate to post and whether information shared will remain confidential. The fall-out from Sony’s hacked email scandal means companies will be keen to ensure networks are truly private. Plus, there are other concerns that reflect the growing unease around social media use in the wider culture.

In his recent book The Circle, American novelist David Eggers has his lead character work at a Google-like Silicon Valley company with an in-house social media system. She soon finds out that posting and sharing her contributions to the business isn’t optional – it’s expected.

Soon she’s working furiously to create an on-line work persona which appears to be perfect. Many young people report the same stress when building their on-line social profiles. And there’s the danger that extending this pressure to the office might be a step too far.

Wingrove acknowledges these issues, and says that it’s important to establish agreed cross-company guidelines to combat them. He adds that businesses should be clear on what these networks can, and can’t, be used for. “I think it’s about creating a sensible approach,” he says. “If you’re going to use it as a sharing tool that’s one thing. If you’re going to use it as a collaborative design tool, then that’s something else. You’ve got to be clear about why you’re doing it rather than just announcing that it’s there, saying ‘ok use it’ and seeing what happens. Setting some expectations would be a useful start.”

Whether companies use Facebook At Work, or a brand new social media system that’s currently just a glint in a developer’s eye, Wingrove says that it’s likely to be ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. “I would imagine within five years this will be a normal approach,” he says. “What I already sense from it is that I don’t have to struggle too hard to sell this idea to people. Normally when you talk about it they go ‘that’s brilliant, how are we going to make this work?’ It’s not an ‘oh, I’m not sure’. But I think the nature of how companies will use it is yet to be decided.”

Future-facing workplaces may be eager to adopt in-house social media: but the way it’s used touches on tricky issues from employee privacy to confidentiality and the boundaries of the virtual office. And that’s the big challenge for today’s leaders. As working life increasingly migrates online, it’ll be up to savvy managers to see exactly where these systems fit into the wider company culture.

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