Social media is changing your business: are you listening?

The hype around social media can obscure two key points: the complexity lies in adapting your business, not in the technology; and leaders that listen have a massive advantage in the new business environment created by Intranet 2.0.

Executive blogs have emerged as an important Intranet 2.0, and understanding how to manage them has become an important competency for internal communications professionals (see Employee intranet blogs wanted). But key to understanding what makes a blog effective is grasping the communication skills of the leaders who author those blogs, particularly their ability to participate naturally in conversations with their employees.

John Chamber, CEO of Cisco, is recognized as having one of the leading blogs for employees. He's also famous for his relentless drive to gather data about his business, and never missing an opportunity to interact with employees and understand their thoughts on the business. There are stories about Chambers asking: "If Cisco could do one thing for you, what would it be?" Chambers typically follows up on the response within weeks, and posts the story to his blog.

In doing so, Chambers shows a grasp for the fundamental principle of social media: success requires participating in a conversation; not trying to shout at your audience.

Participate in the conversation

One of the reasons why social media technology has enjoyed such rapid adoption is that the tools are inexpensive and intuitive to use. As indicated in Presient's Intranet 2.0 Global Survey, the main barrier to adoption is not technology; it's gaining buy-in within the organization.

A key source for the difficulty of gaining buy-in is that the concept of participating in a conversation with employees can be at odds with the hierarchical, command-and-control culture that has dominated some organizations. Adapting your organization to become more listening-oriented is an important first step for preparing for Intranet 2.0 success.

Bernie Charland from Thinktwice Communications, for example, gained valuable insights into how to manage an internal communications strategy based on listening to employees through his experience working for Dell and IronMountain. Bernie has collaborated with Prescient on a number of projects, and based on his experience has suggested the following tips for adapting a communications strategy so it joins the conversation and is well prepared to benefit from Intranet 2.0.

  • At minimum, find a way to listen to the conversation. If there is no logical or accessble forum, create one to drive efficiency (and avoid folks going to a bunch of rogue or scattered platforms).
  • Ideally, organizations should find a way to contribute to the conversation through information, comments and content. There is no real way to manage the conversation, but they can go a long way to influence it and direct it in productive ways.
  • Building on the point above, establish simple rules of engagement (policies) that screen out abuses but supports vibrant, transparent conversation.
  • Finally, the ultimate goal should be to leverage/foster the conversation to support the company's goals - for example by promoting relevant topics/issues, or supporting collaboration and innovation via crowdsourcing.

How fast can you move?

In addition to understanding how to adapt your business to participate in conversations, it's also important to assess how quickly you can adopt Intranet 2.0 technology.

There's no doubt that social media introduces new technology into the organization, requiring communications professionals to rethink some fundamental issues about their job. These fundamental questions can cause confusion about how to introduce social media into the mix and how quickly you can move.

When trying to answer these questions, remember that there are things social media doesn't change: such as employee engagement and the connection the organization's leadership have formed with employees. Prescient's colleague Ralph Beslin of the Beslin Communication Group, prepared the table below for our joint social media readiness seminar in 2009. Ralph based the table on a white paper he co-authored for the Ivey Business Journal called How leaders can communicate to build trust.

The power of the table lies in its familiarity. Ralph's white paper lays out sophisticated techniques for measuring these factors, but the underlying concept is well established and intuitive: the leaders who win are those who communicate openly and often, have a clear and committed communications policy, initiate formal and informal programs and assess their own performance. These leaders, as we saw in the example of John Chambers, have always communicated openly and authentically. Social media simply enables them to do it more effectively.

Gap between CEO & employees




Engagement level: employees




Social media in integrated communications, Go:

Slow: senior management buy-in strategy

Moderate: employee engagement strategy


After understanding how to adapt your communications plan to emphasize listening and assessing your readiness to move, you can get serious about evaluating how to prepare a Blueprint for Intranet 2.0 success.

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