The highs and lows of using social media at work

Charlie Osmond, a Chartered Management Institute companion and director of Fresh Networks, suggests some simple tactics for managing and developing staff in a social world.

by Charlie Osmond
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

There is rather too much social media hype and hoopla for my liking. The excitement of the new has led to an orgy of noise from evangelists and consultants. The outcome has been a flurry of corporate social media policies that few read and a focus on short-term targets dressed up as social strategy. Managers have been left bewildered, unconfident and paralysed by the social media cacophony.

The greatest wins in the social era will fall to those organisations that make strategic use of social media, building sustainable competitive advantage by approaching it in a different way from their competitors. I suspect fewer than 5% of businesses have the opportunity or the commitment to achieve this.

For the rest of us, in particular for managers, I advocate a pragmatic approach to social media. In just five years, your employees have changed how they communicate. How does that affect the day-to-day role of a manager? What opportunities exist for using social media to better engage and manage your team? As a starting point, I wanted to share a few social media tools I use as part of my management arsenal.

LinkedIn is a fabulous resource for hiring, useful for sourcing candidates and also for reference checking. I frequently contact shared connections of interview candidates (with their agreement). This allows me to gather data on a candidate from the people I select, rather than from those proposed. I also feel more confident that I'm getting an honest view.

LinkedIn can also serve as a retention tool. I have occasionally noticed a sudden accumulation of 'recommendations' by people in my team. For me, this was a flag that someone might be looking for a new challenge and it prompted an overdue career conversation. Be aware that using the LinkedIn API to automatically track this behaviour across all employees, while entrepreneurial, is not appropriate.

On a personal note, I generally urge others to avoid giving too many recommendations. They suffer from diminishing marginal credibility, diluting your strongest endorsements. Furthermore, those you recommend might just get what they deserve - the kind of foolish hiring managers who attribute value to a blatantly traded asset.

Facebook requires more caution. I find it more of a distraction than a management tool. It can provide a good space for sharing team photos from awaydays or events. Managers often ask if they should 'friend' their team. There is no definitive answer, it depends how you and your employees choose to use Facebook. However, exercise caution if you are uncertain and keep professional and personal networks separate.

Twitter is a less invasive tool than Facebook for understanding and interacting around personal interests. Alongside other platforms, such as Yammer, it can help make information sharing second nature. It cuts down hierarchy and can aid team cohesion, particularly when people are working from different locations. The challenge is creating a culture of appropriate use. Frequent sharing can easily lapse into never-ending messaging that disrupts and disturbs.

As a manager, I aim to lead by example, encouraging the use of these tools for asynchronous communications and for discussion of specific issues, as opposed to always-on conversation streams. However, do not be too prescriptive. The off-topic sharing on these platforms can give you insights into your team.

My favourite social media tool is the podcast. Podcasts provide free information and are a great training resource. I often advise my teams to listen to them and have given some people a podcast curriculum as part of their personal development. We have purchased £10 MP3 players for teams and preloaded them with 200 or more podcasts relevant to their work. This has to be the greatest value training tool ever, and with Harvard, Stanford and many other business schools providing free courses via podcast, they are a serious alternative to an MBA. Favourites include David Maister's series on professional service firms and The Bottom Line from the BBC, which helps you get into the heads of CEOs.

Many firms now have a blog. They can also serve a manager as a training and development tool. Assigning the task of writing a regular blog post is a great way to encourage staff to keep abreast of industry trends and to develop their writing style. It is a very tangible way to help people build a virtual CV and industry profile.

At the moment, Basecamp is my most valuable social tool. This simple project management software is fantastic for collaborative working in one office or across multiple spaces. My team post group messages, assign tasks, share documents and more. Huddle is a similarly excellent tool from a UK software business. Both provide managers with pragmatic and immediate benefits from adopting social working practices.

Social media is changing fast. It can be hard to keep track. The good news for managers is that there are simple and effective tactics for getting immediate benefits from embracing social, even in a small way. Sometimes, the last thing you need is a strategy.



Charlie Osmond, CCMI is a director at FreshNetworks, a social media consultancy he started five years ago. He is also co-chair of FreshMinds, a research and recruitment consultancy he started in 2000 after graduating. Charlie is a fellow of the British American Project and was named UK Young Entrepreneur of the Year by Esquire Magazine. He has a degree in engineering from Oxford University, and in his spare time likes to keep fit for his annual triathlon.

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