Social Media: Opportunities and Challenges

Initially cringing at the thought of employees using company time and equipment for socializing, employers are quickly learning that the use of social networks for and at work has become common – and potentially invaluable.

Social media has evolved and so too have its business applications. The future will be increasingly mobile and bring new challenges and opportunities.

Management and HR professionals are adopting Web 2.0 tools such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, text messaging, wikis, and discussion groups to engage and interact with wider, more diverse audiences. They are learning that these tools can be beneficial in engaging employees in discussion groups and conversations between teams across geographically and cultural boundaries. Similar benefits are also being explored in the areas of recruitment and customer interaction.

Small and flexible companies are leading the way to use social media as communications tools for work. Many large corporations and government institutions still resist this change by enacting policies to block usage of social media. This resistance is due to the traditional control structures of these organizations.

Boomers Use of Social Media Blooming

From a generational perspective, many people perceive the Millennials as the natural drivers of the social media trend with Boomers struggling and Gen-Xers somewhere in between. Actually, the Boomers are the largest growing segment of social media users and Gen-Xers are most apprehensive about social media as another way to communicate at work.

Holly MacDonald, Principal of Spark + Co., an independent B.C. based consulting firm that develops HR strategies for businesses, says, “I believe this artificial divide is masking the real issue, which is determining what value social media has for all employees”.

MacDonald adds, “The challenge for organizations is recognizing the complexity of diversity, – age, gender, culture, abilities mean that social media needs to be managed. From a learning perspective, we’ve always had to consider diversity, so it isn’t really anything new. Just more complicated!”

Many employers are catching on to social networking as a way for employees to develop their skills. Social learning is immediate, collaborative, and presented in the context of the individual’s unique work environment.

Fostering Collaborative Potential

Social media enables employees to learn from keeping in touch with their peers and listening to what they have to say. Susan Jarema, President of New Earth Marketing says, “Much can be learned from beyond the firewall” – if a company is willing to open up. Companies can have their own social networks within the organization from “behind the wall””.

This can build a collaborative atmosphere for learning and team-building.

If used properly, social media can keep managers and employees current on the latest trends and developments in their industry. Social media can help them network with other experts in their field thereby expanding their knowledge and skills.

Social media presents numerous opportunities for employers and employees to share their experiences and learn. Opportunities include:

  • bridging the gap that has traditionally separated learning from work;
  • on a 24/7 basis, employees can benefit from the convenience of being able to log on for their training when and where they want to;
  • consistent instruction for a geographically-dispersed and diverse workforce;
  • potential for peer learning, mentoring, and creating cohort groups;
  • more and better access to company information;
  • time and money saved; employees are not required to put their work on hold to attend training seminars and programs;
  • less travel time;
  • lower employee turnover; and
  • improved productivity.

Holly MacDonald says. “We no longer have to “train” everyone in customer-facing roles on all product information. We just need to make it easy for them to find the place or person who has the information”. Social networking moves training towards a flexible at-your-fingertips module.

Social media can similarly be seen as an alternative methods of enhancing or extending other traditional programs programs. Many of us recognize that more learning takes place on the job than in the classroom. Allowing social learning enhances learning outcomes and business results.

Facing Up to The Challenges

Although social networking has great potential, it carries many challenges. Many challenges can impose limitations on HR/Training. The workforce will have the largest number of generations, have more immigrants, and possibly a good number of virtual employees

For many employers, social media still represents a new frontier they are not comfortable with. Cross-culturally, there are challenges in languages and customs. The employer’s ability to control and track learning may decrease, resulting in knowledge gaps and inconsistencies. (Counter argument – the employer/manager can follow the threads to see who is contributing what)

Other challenges include:

  • companies not trusting that their employees use social media productively often block it;
  • HR/Training tech-savy level is low;
  • what information should be shared and how it is to be handled;
  • ongoing issues such as harassment, bullying, and confidentiality;
  • issue of intellectual property;
  • illegal activity in the workplace; and
  • accessibility – some IT departments fear security breaches and block sites.

Social media is here to stay and is being used in workplaces whether management likes it or not. There will still be a need for traditional learning. Employees will continue to require mentoring, individual coaching and peer to peer learning which require personal means of communication.

With the rapid increase in the use of social media most information has become widely available. New tools allow for the ease in collaboration and sharing of training and development. They are changing the way we work.

By Lindsay Macintosh, CHRP

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