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The Internal Communication function is changing dramatically, largely by necessity. And that’s a good thing. Much like peers in other communication disciplines (as well as more distant professional cousins in marketing and advertising) IC pros are reinventing themselves in the face of tectonic shifts in technology, communications and consumer behavior.
The trends driving these changes are powerful and inexorable: pervasive social communications; ubiquitous mobility; popularity of digital (and immersive) content; 24/7 data analytics; and the growing influence of consumer advocates, citizen journalists and user-generated content, among others. With regard to the workplace itself, communicators face additional developments and challenges – including chronically low engagement, generational clashes and seemingly endless transformation and downsizing. Collectively these trends are causing deep soul-searching about the relevance and value of traditional HR strategies (i.e. performance management, reward and recognition, training programs.)
Given these dramatic changes, internal communicators need to play a very different role than a few years ago to remain relevant, credible and effective. Here are the key components of this new communication role…call it Internal Communications 2.0:
Integrator – By virtue of their unique position at the nexus of internal and external communications, leadership outreach and internal support functions (e.g. IT and HR), IC pros are in the best position to facilitate coordination across teams and regions to ensure goals, activities and messages are aligned and coordinated. This is particularly true with major cross-company programs like internal branding or M&A outreach that lack an obvious leader. This critical integration role is more than being an enabler – which is more passive – and assumes the IC pro will stretch beyond his/her functional mandate to fill a role that often isn’t well defined or staffed. Without this integration, however, most company programs will probably fail.
Data Analyst – It’s become a truism we are drowning in a sea of data. Big data. Small data. Consumer data. Even employee data. All communicators need to become educated, if not resident experts, in the gathering, analysis and communication of this information. This area is particularly ripe for leadership inside organizations, where many HR teams (traditionally the keepers of workforce data) lack the expertise of marketing/PR teams and are struggling just to update their surveying models. And relegating this role to IT teams, who often manage intranet and platform statistics, isn’t good enough, since those teams usually lack the skills the review the raw numbers for analysis and insights. IC pros should lead the process of collecting, aggregating, assessing and responding to the rich data available on their employees.
Content Curator – IC professionals use to be the primary authors of content in their companies. That role is still important, but it’s become even more important to act as curators of content, helping to blend and share news and information from leaders, external sources and the employees themselves. Some of the best stories and ideas come from employees, so IC pros must ensure there are channels to collect and post this content. There is still an important role to provide editorial guardrails to ensure all shared content is ‘brand safe’, but that’s where communicators need to be more curators than gatekeepers. There is also an important role to play in acting as interpreter for leaders, who are sometimes well intentioned but ineffective and reluctant communicators. Whatever the source of content, the emphasis on authentic, compelling and timely information has made the traditional one-way communication model irrelevant and ineffective.
Listener – One of the most valuable roles IC pros can play is simply to listen to their internal stakeholders; to uncover, understand and respond to the concerns and preferences of employees. Though many inside the typical organization are responsible in some way for listening and responding to employees – notably front-line managers – most usually focus on sporadic, face-to-face interactions and don’t strive to pull the input together into a coherent, actionable narrative. Internal Communication pros can and should play this role, and also steer the company’s response to the input (perhaps through new policies or programs.) This listening role can be formal (gathering data through internal surveys and audits), part of the daily role (community manager for internal social platforms) or mostly informal (lunch meetings with staff or local in-house reporters.) Whatever the approach the IC professional becomes the most accurate and current advocate for the employee community.
Innovator – In many companies no department has the formal responsibility to foster innovation inside the organization, save perhaps a small strategic planning function. Often, the marketing or PR function take on the mantle, but their efforts are usually narrow and may not consider issues like workplace technology and business or entertainment trends. Conversely, most HR and IT teams lack the desire and/or bandwidth to drive innovation inside their organizations. This innovation gap is an opportunity for IC professionals, who have visibility and impact across the organization. Even small innovations like new social platforms or communication content (interactive infographic) can send a strong message and spark more ambitious planning across departments. Two examples of how IC teams can drive innovation across the enterprise is through employee advocacy programs and virtual employee ‘jams’, which often spur the adoption of social technology across the company.
Expert Counselor – Many IC pros have garnered reputations inside their organizations as ‘go to’ experts on not just communication, but a range of related issues like employee engagement, corporate reputation and emerging technology. Given that IC staff frequently brief, interview and/or counsel leaders as part of their work, they are perfectly positioned to share their insights and counsel. The role of wise counselor is not easy to gain or keep, but it’s well worth the effort. Leaders today are looking for smart analysis and cogent guidance, particularly on emerging business trends, and those who provide that will gain in profile and credibility. A caveat: this counsel should be strategic, not just focused on tactical execution – a shortcoming which has eroded the credibility and standing of the IC function in the past.
Trainer – IC pros that gain expertise in new technology and current workplace trends can train leaders and peers to raise the acumen and strategic agility of the organization. Much of this work typically involves working with senior leaders to help them communicate and lead more effectively, but the mandate need not be so limited. Many leaders yearn for guidance in areas as disparate as blog writing, social interaction and cultural events – all areas where IC staff can lead. Companies with social platforms often rely on IC staff to facilitate the training on relevant policies and platform use. The training itself should be as contemporary and dynamic as the information (think e-learning and gamification rather than traditional face-to-face sessions or death by Webinar.)
Multi-Media Storyteller – It’s well documented that often the best way to share information is through a compelling, episodic narrative shared across media formats. Internal Communication teams are ideally positioned to drive this process internally, pulling together capabilities like writing, design, promotion, video, social technology and executive outreach. As noted previously, communication staff should be the ones who uncover, shape and help share the internal stories. IC teams also usually manage their company’s intranet, which can be a powerful multi-media delivery channel if used effectively – the Swiss Army knife of internal tools. Conversely, teams that stick to outdated communication channels (email) and styles (formal text) are missing an opportunity to break through the clutter and truly engage their audience.
Culture Ambassador – Though HR has historically taken the reins to promote culture inside organizations, IC pros are probably better positioned to help define, celebrate and promote a company’s distinctive culture. IC teams often have strong capabilities in marketing, messaging, social dialogue, digital content and even collateral – which together can pack a powerful, convincing punch. Furthermore, IC pros often take on the role of employee advocate inside their organizations, ensuring that the needs and aspirations of employees are heard and considered in decision-making. The purpose is not just altruistic, but an effort to ensure communication is relevant and credible. The emergence of employee advocacy, virtual meetings and crowd-sourcing programs only reinforces the role of internal communicators as keepers of the culture.
It’s true that taking on these new roles likely entails more work – or at minimum very different work – and certainly more risk and responsibility. And it assumes a great deal of research, networking, learning and adapting – and that never stops. But inertia is not really an option. Failure to proactively take on these critical roles – which too often go unfilled – will limit the function’s value inside an organization, and probably erode the team’s reputation and credibility. It’s taken years of effort for IC pros to get a place at the proverbial leadership table and gain the reputation of strategists, not just order-takers or tacticians. Now IC pros have the opportunity to not only secure their place at the decision-making table, but to expand their traditional role and enhance their reputation. It won’t be easy, but the effort is well worth it.
Over the past few years, I’ve often questioned why so many communication professionals – both in-house and in PR agencies – were slow and hesitant to adapt to the dramatic industry changes sparked by social technology. There are many logical explanations for this lag: caution about legal issues, concern about a public misstep, fears about rogue employees, a distaste for real (and potentially negative) interaction with consumers…the list goes on. But based on recent research I’ve seen the explanation may be more basic: most PR professionals simply don’t have the social media skills and expertise to be effective (or confident) advocates for change.
This excellent post by friend and former colleague Richard Binhammer provides a good summary of the skills gap in marketing and across the general US employee population. Indeed, the problem is not limited to communication professionals. However, this is where the problem is most acute and noteworthy, since our jobs dictate that we provide cogent, informed counsel and support on digital engagement with both external and internal audiences. By some estimates in these studies, only about 10 percent of workers truly understand digital technology well enough to incorporate that knowledge into their work and planning. For more background on the PR skill gap see this article and this study.
Even millennials, who tend to be much more tech-savvy than older workers and use most major social platforms every day, have their blind spots. Though younger workers have grown up with the mobile Internet and have likely posted most of their lives online, they lack the strategic savvy and broader perspective required to use their knowledge in a business context. Put another way, they understand the technology, but not the PR business. This article in Fortune provides a good snapshot of the millennial strengths and weaknesses.
All of this evidence reflects what I’ve seen over the past 10 or so years as both a communication executive and consultant. We are falling behind in a digital world. Badly. Events like SXSW, the tip of the spear in digital innovation, suggest that everybody is fully immersed in digital media and driving cutting-edge social media strategies in marketing, advertising and communications. But I don’t think the folks at SXSW reflect the average PR professional, or company – particularly outside the tech havens of Silicon Valley, Portland and similar global outposts.
Leaders who are socially savvy and proactive are extremely rare, the proverbial unicorn. A surprising number of communication teams seem to rely on one or two in-house digital gurus – typically social media managers, digital designers or marketing experts – who are often over-taxed and overwhelmed. Lacking adequate depth and breadth of critical social skills, many communication teams rely on a range of outside experts ranging across digital disciplines to cobble together programs: web design, platform vendor/technology, visual/video content, editorial content, social community management, research and analytics, and so forth. I’ve rarely seen all this requisite expertise housed within a PR agency or team, much less inside the same organization. Though the outsourced virtual “best team” approach may be effective in the short-term, it doesn’t support the efficient, dedicated work required to plan and execute a robust digital strategy.
There is urgent need to address this social skill gap; the credibility, relevance and effectiveness of the communication/PR business are at stake. The solutions are obvious, if not easy or inexpensive: training in social media history and skills; built-in time to participate in relevant seminars and meetings; progressive BYOD and social media policies; reverse mentorship programs; recruitment of tech-savvy professionals; mandatory boot-camps on digital metrics; and, alignment with related disciplines (i.e. digital design, intranet technology, social analytics, CRM.) Smart communication leaders will take steps to ensure they – and their teams – become the social media experts their clients expect and need to be successful in the digital age. Without making progress in the social skill gap, I fear PR may simply be pushed out by smart marketing or technology firms (and teams) who pull together the requisite social capabilities.
Every year I watch with interest as new technology trends and tools are introduced and discussed. Beyond the impressive innovation and creativity – and yes, the occasional false start and tendency towards hype – my favored activity is digging into the expected and potential applications for marketing and communication disciplines.
The recent CES conference provides plenty of fodder for discussion. The coverage I’ve read and seen focuses on a number of exciting trends:
- The Internet of everything – There is a marked trend towards having access to the internet from anywhere, anytime to do whatever we want. We can buy a product using only our iPhone, access the Web in our cars through voice commands, change the temperature of our home remotely, access (or record/save/share) content from a range of mobile devices…you get the drift. It’s all about connectivity across all platforms, allowing us to perform a huge number of activities that require, or are helped by, access to the internet.
- Technology gets personal – With the boom in wearables, including sophisticated smart watches, you can now connect with your doctor remotely (with real-time sharing of your vital signs) and track every second of your life. Of course, this also allows you to share or use that data with a wide range of appliances and applications.
- It’s still about content (and data) – This year’s CES had the usual improvements in dazzling ways to share digital content, ranging from virtual reality to curved ultra-high-definition TVs. On the data side, many of these applications require or encourage increased use of data – notably personal data from wearables. The trick is how to collect, organize, analyze and use all the information across all the potential access points.
So what does all this mean for communication professionals – if anything?
My first reaction is: with all this focus on internet everywhere connectivity, why do so many workplaces still have limited social and mobile capability? I see plenty of room for improvement for many organizations (except perhaps the usual suspects in the tech world) to deploy and mobilize a mobile strategy to inform, engage and support their employees. Forget high-def digital screens; many are still working to allow use of BYOD smartphones and tablets among their staff, while others are struggling to ensure their intranets have responsive design for mobile users. One example of potential innovation is using smart cars for employees who spend most/all of their time on the road.
I also see a gap – or to be more positive, a major opportunity – around the trend of personalization, notably personalizing content and communication outreach inside organizations. This need not involve wearables like smart watches – which for many companies are likely years away – but can start with more agile, smarter segmentation of outreach and increased use of personalization on existing platforms like intranets or email networks. Most intranet platforms allow for considerable customization to allow users to focus on feeds and content that is most relevant to them. Communicators can also easily increase the ability for employees to opt into content, of feeds, that are most interesting to them rather than pushing mass distribution. Another simple improvement is making full use of so-called rich profile tools (like My Site) that allow employees to partially shape their own employee profile information.
I think the biggest contrast between the cutting-edge of CES and the average workplace is around data. Where one of the main topics at CES was around the push to collect, track and analyze all manner of data (like those smart watches) for many companies the very concept of data is nascent, limited mostly to cumbersome annual surveys, rudimentary tracking statistics and profile information. Some forward-thinking companies are showing progress in this area; for example, using real-time, regular online culture surveys, and using analysis to match employee engagement data with other metrics like customer satisfaction, engagement and productivity. Others, however, still struggle with old-school issues like updating staff directories (if they are even online) and integrating disparate, disconnected systems.
Ironically, all the hype and excitement from CES serves as a good reminder that it’s not all about technology. Though it’s become a well-worn truism, internal communications still has to include, if not feature, people in the communication mix – notably managers and leaders. But even here, the dazzling new technology offers fertile ground for innovation. Surely we can find better ways to inform and mobilize managers so they can in turn communicate with their teams more consistently and effectively. The real lesson for CES is that communication professionals should always be learning and listening; new ideas and improvements can come from anywhere.
I recently had the chance to have an informal videoconversation with my good friend and e-learning guru Anders Gronstedt, CEO of The Gronstedt Group, about employee communication trends and opportunities. We cover a fair amount of ground on topics such as social media (inside the enterprise), staff training, employee engagement and emerging communication technology. One of the themes emerging from our conversation is that despite the hype and promise of social media, many companies are still hesitant to embrace new collaborative and social technology in the workplace. Please share your questions and comments.
Over the past few months I’ve attended (mostly virtually) a number of webinars and conferences focusing on social analytics and business intelligence. The latest was the Social Intelligence Summit put on by the W20 folks in London. (Here is a good blog post on the session.) I always come out of these sessions really impressed, even dazzled, by the advances in technology and intellectual leadership at the cutting edge of social business. The big lesson for me from these sessions is that the digital world is – with few exceptions – transparent, observable and measurable, and we’re coming up with increasingly smarter ways to find, package and use the digital data.
It’s difficult to pull highlights from the sheer volume of notable observations and insights, but here are a few I’ve noted:
- There are now a wide range of sophisticated, user-friendly tools to help organizations monitor, aggregate, analyze and report activity on the Web – including multi-media discussions occurring on social platforms;
- Analytics software can now provide complex, real-time data and insights that allow organizations to monitor and adapt their outreach 24/7;
- Smart companies have gone well beyond listening and engagement and are now using the data to understand their audience (and how their brand is performing) and gain intelligence to drive their business;
- Powerful analytics are being used well beyond the basic objectives of marketing – to drive brand or product awareness, consideration and hopefully purchase – and are now helping to guide activities as varied as health planning, product development and even predictive consumer research;
- There seems to be a shift in what companies measure, with some focusing well beyond the usual reach/share of voice/tone to issues like identifying and mobilizing small groups of influential advocates, or determining highly customized and protean media channel strategies;
- Some of the most interesting and advanced analytics work seeks to link social data and insights with specific business processes, transactions and outcomes – and using the insights to adapt and improve related business results.
My initial thought coming out of these events is euphoria (and humility) at the incredible innovation and intellectual sophistication in social media circles, and appreciation so much of this information and technology is readily available for all to use. But inevitably there is a thud when I return back to reality with my own observations, projects and clients. The reality is what I hear in these conferences and webinars still seems like rarified air in my consulting environment, with most clients or peers I see still grappling to understand and implement even the most rudimentary social platforms and strategy. If anything, I feel the gap between the analytics gurus and many of the corporate leaders (and communication pros) I work with is getting wider. In effect, I see a few pioneers with one foot in the future, but many others with one foot firmly placed in the past.
Perhaps the largest gap, and opportunity, is inside the organization. Most companies have at least some commitment to monitoring external social conversations and using the resulting data and insights to direct their social strategy, if not their broader business. But it’s much more infrequent to find companies that deploy social technology inside their enterprise and actually monitor, measure and analyze all the data generated by their employees. And leveraging Intranet traffic metrics or annual engagement surveys does not count as a real-time, robust analytics strategy.
Think of the potential outcomes if companies started to aggregate and interpret all the data on or from their workforce. Those kind of insights would not only help to track and drive engagement – the priority for many HR leaders and employee communication executives – but also provide valuable information to positively impact business outcomes such as productivity, retention, safety and even customer service. I’m personally hoping the analytics gap closes soon. Otherwise leaders and communication professionals are leaving a lot on the table.
A recent war of words – played out on the Web between Gawker and Reddit – was only the latest example of the argument surrounding the right approach for screening comments on the Intranet. In this case, the folks at Gawker helped to out one of the most notorious trolls on Reddit, which is a popular hangout for anonymous users who like to push the envelope on what is appropriate content. The discussion surrounding this issue raised important questions about privacy, conduct rules and the quality and scope of free expression. I have to admit I’m glad Gawker “outed” the troll in question – since I found his work toxic – but I wish Reddit would have more taken proactive steps to purge their site of the most egregious abuses.
This online polemic brought to light an unfortunate truth about the Web; the sad state of commentary of many sites and platforms. Several years ago, when new social platforms greatly expanded and facilitated the process of online commentary, I was optimistic that communities (both large and specific to sites and authors) would generate a fairly useful and candid exchange of ideas. There would always be outliers and pesky critics who seem to spend all their waking hours on sites, of course, but on balance the community would self-regulate and provide a range of reasonable ideas and arguments.
Unfortunately, based on what I’m seeing online lately I have to admit that is often not the case. Many comment sections – even for websites and platforms where you would expect good self-regulation and informed users – are a wasteland of trolls, spammers and perverts. Some of the worst offenders are political hacks that don’t even bother with original content, re-posting their canned message numerous times with little logic. If there are rules of conduct and filters for inappropriate language, they are not immediately apparent. I suspect many of the sites are rarely if ever moderated or edited. I realize that some topics invite strong opinions – notably news and political sites – but the noise has spread well beyond the expected sites and platforms. Take a look at this recent example on CNN, where a seemingly innocuous (and positive) news post about Drake getting his high-school diploma sparked a nasty, racist diatribe of abuse.
Most communication professionals would agree the ideal is to foster robust dialogue on the Web – and to allow questions, comments and suggestions that help extend and enrich the discussion (or related products and services.) But that choice is no longer automatic given the bottom-feeder trash on many comment sections. The key question for many has become – is it even worth it to try to manage the comment sections? More pointedly, how do you encourage and filter comments without coming down too hard on either censorship or chaos? This question is a critical issue not just for individuals and organizations on the web, but also for companies striving to engage their employees through internal platforms behind the firewall.
My take is that allowing anonymous comments – particularly inside a secure, corporate platform – opens the door to the worst abuses. Even without formal identification or registration requirements, the quality of dialogue would greatly improve with more diligent moderation. Set common-sense rules and enforce them. Where abuses do occur – whether based on a site’s conduct guidelines or broader legal restrictions – site managers should take responsibility and remove and/or punish the offenders, rather than taking a hands-off approach with a blanket defense of freedom of speech. Whatever the response, something has to change or I fear many comment sections will be left to a vocal, vitriolic minority that erodes the credibility and relevance of the conversation, as well as the sponsoring sites and organizations.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review – which continues to provide solid contributions to the analysis of social media’s impact on culture and industry – argues that many marketers are using an outdated model and spending money and effort in the wrong places. The article states: Consumers still want a clear brand promise and offerings they value. What has changed is when—at what touch points—they are most open to influence, and how you can interact with them at those points. In the past, marketing strategies that put the lion’s share of resources into building brand awareness and then opening wallets at the point of purchase worked pretty well. But touch points have changed in both number and nature, requiring a major adjustment to realign marketers’ strategy and budgets with where consumers are actually spending their time. [I added the bold for emphasis.] The authors take a fresh look at the “funnel” marketing model where awareness drives consideration which drives purchase. According to their research, today’s consumers take a much more iterative and less reductive journey of four stages: consider, evaluate, buy, and enjoy, advocate, bond.
Variations of this new theory have been around for a while, but what I found interesting is questioning if and how this critical analysis would apply to communications – both internal and external. In other words, are we focusing our communication efforts in the wrong places and events, and perhaps also using the wrong channels and tools? Let’s take internal communications as an example.
Traditional employee communication “touch points” have focused on seminal events like orientation, staff/company meetings, quarterly updates and annual workplace campaigns like benefit enrollment. In terms of channels, many companies still favor traditional, formal push formats like email, memos and staff meetings – though many are exploring more interactive, virtual channels and transforming their intranets into dynamic social platforms. In fact, the bulk of internal communication seems to be event-driven and episodic, rather than an ongoing dialogue. The question all communicators should ask is: are these the right “touch points” to reach our employees, and are we using the right methods to interact with them? When are our employees most receptive to information? When are they likely to discuss news with peers or leaders? When might they want to add their own opinions or ideas to the mix?
Using the proposed HBR paradigm, I suggest that most internal communication programs are lacking in the following areas:
- Consideration – Organizations devote considerable effort to attracting talent and even branding the work experience (or the employee value proposition) but I would argue too many consider the “sale” completed once the employee is hired. That approach is short-sighted, given the chronic percentage of disengaged employees and the attrition of key talent at many companies (particularly after the initial honeymoon year.) Like consumer brands, companies need to pursue a sustained approach that seeks to keep employees engaged well past the point of hiring.
- Evaluation – Though employees are in some ways a captive audience they are likely to engage in the same evaluation process as consumers, and may seek input from peers, third-parties and even competitors when assessing the relevance and credibility of internal messages or even the quality of their workplace. This evaluation is also likely to generate questions and comments from staff. From my observation, few companies provide an adequate process to manage this deliberation process, presumably assuming employees will simply accept the information (and directives) at face value. Another point that probably fits here is that evaluation by employees should ideally allow ways for them to contribute their own ideas and feedback to company programs and policies.
- Advocate – While most companies devote considerable resources to identifying and leveraging their consumer fan base, far fewer take a similar approach with their internal advocates. Progressive companies need to consider not only how to leverage their influential ambassadors inside the company, but also how to mobilize their staff outside the firewalls. In my experience, many companies aren’t even aware of the profile and actions of their employees on networks like Facebook and Twitter, and even fewer have a proactive program to harness staff and alumni as informal advocates with external stakeholders.
- Bond – While many companies are exploring new ways to drive internal collaboration under the guise of productivity, few are focusing on helping their staff network and share content for the sake of cultural alignment and personal connection. If we’ve learned nothing else from the explosion of social media, it’s that people want to connect with each other. Still, some companies make it difficult for staff to communicate – or even identify each other – using corporate channels, probably due to concerns the chatter will be a distraction. And company email doesn’t make the cut in this regard.
An additional observation that doesn’t fit in the HBR model is that many companies focus only on their own formal communication channels to communicate with employees. Given the explosion of mobile technology and prevalence of social networks, a better approach would be to assess how employees communicate inside and outside the company and find relevant ways to participate in that digital conversation. Continuing to push out information through enclosed channels that may be an after-thought to most employees is not a viable solution.
Perhaps the best approach for companies is to treat their employees as consumers – or even free-agents – who require the same sustained attention as people considering brands and products. Keeping staff informed, productive and loyal is a full-time marketing challenge.
According to a recent report – aptly named the Intranet 2.0 Global Study – the use of social tools on corporate intranets has boomed…sort of. The findings suggest most global organizations have at least one social tool on their intranet (in the majority of cases a blog platform), but a fully integrated “social intranet” – with a range of tools that are widely available and prominently featured – is still quite rare. (Thanks to my friends at Prescient Digital in Toronto for their post on the study.)
This finding is consistent with my professional experience in recent years. Even as social media use (and hype) explodes, companies are still reluctant to leverage their intranet to full advantage as a social media hub. In theory, it should be relatively easy to leverage existing intranet platforms – many of which come with built-in social tools and/or options. Some CMS platforms are like social media swiss army knives – with a full array of 2.0 bells and whistles. But most intranets are big, expensive systems and many companies seem unwilling to invest in adjustments or new technology. Changes in strategy and technology are often laborious. The alternative, for some companies, is to leverage the plethora of available cloud options – which can satisfy virtually every social media need, ranging from the basics (micro blogging, staff profiles) to the more esoteric (crowd-sourcing.) Just today, I read about the upgraded Chatter platform – which seems to provide a robust enterprise social media toolkit.
Each of these approaches has obvious benefits – and some challenges – but neither seems to have much traction inside most companies. Why not? Well, I would suggest the inherent risk-aversion of IT departments is still a big factor, as are cultural inertia, lack of leadership support and funding considerations.
Other studies – including this Engagement Survey by the IABC – suggest the issue goes beyond the intranet, and reflects a broader ambivalence about using social media within the enterprise. In the 2010 IABC report, the intranet was the second most popular communication channel after email – almost ubiquitous across the corporate world. But only 12% of the same respondents said they used social media tools (on the intranet or otherwise.) Digging a little deeper, the findings suggest a limited use of specific tools:
- Discussion boards – 32%
- Internal social networks – 30%
- Wikis – 26%
- Yammer – 10 %
[I’m not listing blogs since there was no obvious break-down of internal vs. external use.]
Perhaps the most telling statistic in the whole survey – over 60% of top executives are not participating in any internal social media tools. Until that changes, change will be slow to come – no matter what technology solution is being considered.
The past couple of weeks has been pretty much business as usual in the exciting world of communication technology: product innovations (e.g. Google’s cool new instant search function or Apple’s new iPod line); new applications with huge potential (e.g. alliance of Chatter with Seesmic social platforms); competitive jockeying pushing companies to building a better “mousetrap” (e.g. Google joining foursquare and others in the location game). Outside corporate firewalls, it’s a fascinating cycle of restless creativity, new technology, cutthroat competition and strategic soul-searching…with huge benefits for consumers and businesses eager to leverage the new technology. It’s easier (and more exciting) than ever for individuals – and even networks of peers or colleagues – to stay informed, communicate, share ideas or advice, be productive…or just be entertained.
The contrast between this fertile, dynamic environment and life behind corporate firewalls is striking – and the gap may be getting bigger. While it’s true that some companies (particularly smaller organizations or the usual suspects in the technology field) are forward-thinking and courageous when it comes to technology, which translates into integrated social media programs that seek to bridge the potential divide between external and internal programs, based on my personal experience most are operating in a world closer to 1984 than 2010. (I’m going on personal experience and anecdotal data here…It’s tough to find updated stats that differentiate social media within the Enterprise from external activities, but this report is useful context.) When I was at Dell, for example, they intentionally leveraged their external platforms (notably Direct2Dell blog and IdeaStorm crowd-sourcing) with their PR and customer service systems within the organization, ensuring that the feedback and issues raised in the blogosphere were incorporated and addressed within the organization. The bridge between external and internal was wide open, so to speak.
Most of what I’ve seen, alas, is far from this ideal. Forget trying to find companies that use location-based applications within the firewall, for example, which would seem to offer huge potential to make internal communication more local and relevant. Many companies are still working on (or thinking about) basic networking tools or blogging platforms – likely still engaged in discussions about risk vs. reward. And in terms of technology devices, I can count on one hand companies that use smart phones or advanced portable devices (like the iPad or netbooks) with their staff – at least beyond senior executives – which seriously hampers their ability to leverage the advancements in mobility, wireless ubiquity and delivery of rich content. For most organizations, the intranet is their trojan horse for communication technology inside the firewall – for better or for worse. (Check out this blog post for another perspective on Enterprise 2.0 progress.) Some are able to introduce and use pretty advanced tools through new CMS platforms (the latest version of SharePoint has enough features to fulfill most basic networking and collaboration needs), but dramatic changes typically occur when companies get plug-and-play enterprise platforms that introduce new capabilities – such as Jive, Yammer or BrightIdea. And even with companies dabbling in pretty advanced technology, the odds are high that their internal efforts are lagging behind their marketing or PR activities (and tools) and/or not fully aligned.
The reasons for this reluctance and hesitation have been well covered – resources, legal risk, culture, inertia, ignorance – and there is merit to some of these explanations. And I would never advocate just jumping in head first…introducing technology for its own sake, without a robust strategy and business imperative. But the greater risk to organizations is that their archaic internal communication programs become so detached from external progress than they become totally irrelevant. And it won’t be just the younger workers – raised in an ecosystem on information on demand and advanced social media – who will get disillusioned and disinterested. It’s time for internal communication leaders and professional to start with a blank slate to (with apologies to Robin Williams) seize the day and utilize the incredible technological power inherent in the new devices and programs.
This past week Google took a few big strides in the race to offer the most comprehensive online search technology – introducing some new features which allow users to see real-time updates and further personalize their findings. Search results will now automatically include a stream of real-time (and constantly updated) comments from social networks, news feeds and blog posts. Searches on Google will now include real-time updates from sites like Twitter and Facebook. The findings will also be further personalized based on previous searches by the user. Google also introduced an interesting new feature allowing users to use a photo (taken on mobile devices) to get information on the object in the picture. Check out a blog post on the announcement here and news coverage here and here. (The original announcement by Google, complete with video examples, is here.)
Most of the coverage and blog conversation about Google’s announcement focuses on how this will impact the search engine race, particularly the impact on upstart Bing and networks like Twitter and MySpace (who have their own upstart search functions). But speculation on the implications of “supersearch” on PR – and communication professionals – is just beginning, and no less interesting. Here are my initial take-aways.
- Companies focusing on using SEO to manage their profiles on Google will have a harder time, since now a good part of the results will come from more fluid, unpredictable networks like Twitter – where conversation is much harder to follow, and very difficult to shape.
- These changes give social networks even more prominence and potential clout than before, so organizations that do not have a formal presence on these sites need to quickly devise a strategy for building a credible profile – ideally through an influential group of friends/fans/followers. Putting up a corporate page on Facebook or MySpace and letting it gather dust is no longer an option.
- Since Google makes it that much easier for users to find breaking news and commentary on any topic – and uncover emerging content trends – it becomes more critical that communicators themselves keep abreast of relevant developments and online chatter. If monitoring the Web was important before – relatively easy using aggregators like NetVibes and Google Reader – it’s become an absolute necessity now.
- In a similar vein to the point above, managing a crisis becomes a more dynamic and challenging exercise in this real-time, robust search environment. Communicators eager to quell rumors or address a contentious issue need to consider if and how they can implement their strategy within this cacophony of search data. At minimum, they need to find an effective way to get the word out (perhaps through their own friends/fans on these networks or sympathetic bloggers.)
- Companies who use Google for Web search on their internal systems will be able to leverage the new real-time technology, but those on the cutting-edge will want to explore how they can use the same search logic with their own proprietary platforms and sites – such as their intranet or internal networks. This would allow employees to benefit from the latest commentary and news on salient internal issues, which previously might have been buried in emails, rogue sites or hidden files.
- Finally, it may be stating the obvious but organizations that don’t yet have clear policies and protocols for online use are at even higher risk of a self-inflicted reputation implosion. Staff need to understand what they can and can’t do on the Web – whether it be on their own time or as formal representatives of a company. The heightened popularity of Twitter and Facebook and increased profile on general search substantially raises the stakes.
Ultimately, the lesson for PR professionals is simple: ignore these changes at your own peril. The pace and scope of progress in communication technology requires sustained observation and planning.