Among the most valuable renewable resources of a viable business is the innovation and creativity of its employees. What if enterprises could harness the ideas and innovation of their employee base along every line of the organizational chart? That would be a powerful tool. That powerful tool could be social networking.
There's a new show on CBS called Undercover Boss that touches on the untapped value of deep collaboration. Each week, this series depicts executives going undercover, rolling up their sleeves to work alongside their employees. In doing so, executives see firsthand the impact their decisions have had. They hear uncensored insight into problems and solutions from employees who otherwise would not have a voice. Bosses can also see who is consistently shining.
Social networking as middleware
By adding a social layer within the enterprise, all employees can connect in an actionable, organized way without going undercover. Think of social networking as middleware -- a scalable tool that transforms fragmented information like email directories and IM buddy lists into a visual network that participants can interact with.
Social networks bypass traditional hierarchical management models, providing a destination to build online communities where ideas and information trump organizational positioning. These communities aggregate the information exchanged in emails, conference calls, presentations, and water-cooler talk into shared spaces where leadership is broadly distributed — augmenting person-to-person collaboration.
Online communities provide an open venue for people from different business units and geographical locations -- groups that typically have little to no interaction -- to brainstorm and collaborate. A simple idea or approach commonplace to one group may be a huge value-add to another. And that's just the beginning.
If corporations provide all participants within the community with a voice and empower employees with the notion that they can catalyze change, ideas and innovation can grab traction and vine in ways that previously just weren't possible.
Netting the collective intelligence of the social layer
The social layer becomes a net, catching the collective intelligence of the entire enterprise. This collective intelligence is sorted, ranked and searchable, providing an efficient means for participants to share or find specific information.
Having strong search capabilities, including federated search capabilities, is critical to building a successful social networking platform. Federated search indexes content from other systems and repositories, queries third-party search engines and accepts requests from other search engines. Search capabilities can extend to employee profiles. If profiles are filled out completely, co-workers will be better equipped to find people with domain-specific knowledge and get the answers they need more efficiently.
Social networking communities enable user-generated feedback, such as tags and content-rating systems. Tags correlate topics to a taxonomy driven by participants, sorting related content topics.
Participants can also rate content relevancy. This ranking framework not only helps people find the most accurate information, it encourages employees to help one another.
Training and support with social networking
Technical support and training needs can be streamlined through online communities. Questions can be sent out to a large group. Recipients can control whether they want to allow all questions or define more specific parameters and just receive questions from certain groups or people. If people find the answers they need on the social network, they can bypass the help desk, reducing help desk tickets and saving resources.
Social networking also provides a platform to train and acclimate new hires to your culture. Providing introductory material on the social network -- how to set up a conference call, for example, or where to send expense reports -- makes it easier for new hires to self-synchronize to their new environment and saves others time answering questions.
By coupling relevancy rankings and user activity levels, HR has another tool to manage talent. New leaders can be filtered out for promotion, and current leaders can continue to build their legacy within an organization.
Social networking can streamline business process outcomes. Employees can network with one another within the communities and solve problems as they arise. If decision rights are extended to these workers, issues can be addressed quickly without having to wait for a top-down process.
Common workspaces can bolster the benefits of real-time collaboration and cut costs. If several people are working on a report, for example, that report could reside in a common workspace where people can post comments rather than passing around emails. Document updates are immediately available to the group. Since updates are accessed via the common workspace, storage costs could be reduced by decreasing the number of emails and attachments that are sent over the network.
Fostering a healthy social network
Some staffers will be more reticent about sharing ideas and speaking up. To foster participation, companies need to embrace the freedom of social networking and not get too bogged down trying to police the information that gets posted to an internal social network. If people feel they are being closely monitored, they are likely to shy away from participation.
Organizations may be inclined to set up access restrictions on communities because of transparency, compliance or privacy concerns, but gating communities will probably inhibit the viral nature of social networking.
Social networks break down organizational silos, increase ad hoc engagement across the organization, build dense connections and improve the knowledge base. If this is executed properly, employees will log on to the social network rather than email accounts.