HR Technology

By Bill Roberts Mar 1, 2008

HR Magazine, March 2008 Social Networking At the Office

Are public sites the way to go? Or does your enterprise need more control?

A Silicon Valley company rattled the webisphere last fall when its chief executive officer announced a policy embracing company use of Facebook, a social networking web site. He urged his 800 employees to sign up for Facebook for free, and to use it to network with one another and to spend time each Friday getting to know far-flung fellow workers. Facebook Fridays, they call it.

The company, Serena Software Inc., based in San Mateo, Calif., even sent out a press release that quoted CEO Jeremy Burton: “Social networking tools like Facebook can bring us back together, help us get to know each other as people, help us understand our business and our products, and help us better serve our customers.”

Social networking numbers among the Web 2.0 technologies that can help a company foster communication and collaboration. (See “Counting on Collaboration” on page 47 of the October 2007 issue of HR Magazine.) But do most companies really want to use Facebook, MySpace or other public web sites as their social networks?

It works for Serena. But for most businesses, using any public site as the corporate social network may be too big a cultural stretch. What should not be a stretch is the use of social networking software that can be controlled within the corporate firewall. Adopters of such software have become convinced that it will bring dispersed workers closer together.

A key objective of a year-old social network initiative at Nestlé USA Inc., the Glendale, Calif.-based subsidiary of Nestlé S.A. of Vevey, Switzerland, is to “break down functional and locationbased silos,” says Alexis Bergen, manager of corporate and brand affairs. It is “to encourage employees to ‘meet’ and engage with employees they hadn’t already met. Employees who do this are better workers and more efficient.”

Weighing Options

Facebook and MySpace are the leading public social networking web sites. Users can upload personal information, including photos and videos, to share with friends. Both sites allow interest groups and companies to set up restricted areas for invited users only. They also allow the use of outside applications.

Many organizations, including the CIA, use Facebook to post job openings. Yet many of these same organizations block access to Facebook from the corporate intranet.

TMP Worldwide Advertising & Communications LLC, a recruitment advertising agency in New York City, recently launched an application that its clients’ employees can use to promote job openings from their Facebook profiles. Lawson Software Inc., based in St. Paul, Minn., offers a similar application.

Before using sites like Facebook and MySpace, with tens of millions of users— or LinkedIn, a business-oriented site with fewer users—for corporate purposes, executives should do homework to decide if using a public site as the corporate social network would be preferable to buying a commercial product that offers similar functions but with the added protection of command-and-control features within the corporate firewall.

Here is how several companies, including Serena, approached the decision to adopt social networking technology.

‘Friends’ at Work

With 800 employees in 29 offices in 14 countries, Serena, having grown through acquisitions, is more geographically distributed than many larger companies. About 30 percent of employees work from home. The headquarters has 90 workers, and the largest group of employees is the 200 in the Hillsboro, Ore., office.

“From a cultural standpoint, bringing together a lot of disparate corporate cultures can be a challenge, and we see Facebook as helping that effort,” says Mary Helen Waldo, Serena’s vice president of global HR. “How do you communicate when people never see each other or, if they do, it is just once or twice a year? It has been borne out in my years in HR that when you know each other as people—what makes you tick, how you make decisions—you can work together more effectively.” Burton, Waldo’s boss, says Facebook can be a virtual water cooler.

Serena officials considered adopting commercial social networking software launched on its intranet, but they decided this would make the effort too formal. The company uses commercial social networking software with customers and partners.

Serena doesn’t require employees to use Facebook, but more than 90 percent have profiles. So as not to appear to be Big Brother, Serena does not track individual use of Facebook. But Waldo gets a tally of total usage, and she calculates that employees use the site for an average of less than 10 minutes per week— not exactly a time drain.

In keeping with Serena’s open culture, there are no rules for Facebook use, but the code of conduct applies. So far, the only issues have been hypothetical ones. “We felt our workforce was mature enough to do this,” says Waldo.

Governance a Driver

Dow Chemical Co., in Midland, Mich., sees the virtual world in a different light. A relatively early adopter of intranet and various Web 2.0 technologies, Dow is not technophobic. Company officials understand the potential of social networking, especially to keep in touch with retirees and other former employees. However, Dow wanted some level of control, so it installed commercial software protected by its firewall. Facebook was not considered.

“We had our lawyers with us every step of the way. Their concerns were governance: We have controls over what is on the site and who is on the site and how it is used,” says Julie Sasone Holder, corporate vice president for HR, marketing, sales and public affairs. “In a $50 billion company with 44,000 employees, governance has to be top of mind as we look at enterprise risk management.”

In early December 2007, Dow launched its social network, aimed initially at its U.S. workforce of 22,000, using software from SelectMinds Inc., based in New York City. The network has functions for profiles, photo sharing and other features, and is accessible to employees, former employees and retirees. “The idea of an alumni network was the original vision,” Holder says.

Dow often needs temporary workers for projects, and retirees frequently are tapped to fill the roles. Dow also has a history of rehiring former employees. Says Holder: “When you run the finances, you only need to make five hires through informal networking, compared to traditional hiring methods, to have a payback for the software.”

One month after launch, more than 3,000 users had posted profiles, including 2,624 current employees, 93 former employees and 374 retirees. Use has spread mostly through word-of-mouth, Holder says, with Dow doing only a small amount of advertising. Some existing employee affiliation groups— women, workers with disabilities and others—helped spread the word about the social network and already use it.

Nestlé USA also opted to create a social network within its firewall. Its network, launched a year ago, is available to the more than 7,000 workers who have Internet access from the organization’s offices. Managers at the parent company watch to see how it works with an eye toward taking it worldwide, Bergen says.

Nestlé USA partnered with The Concept Farm, an interactive advertising and marketing company in New York City, to design its application. Users can post profiles, upload photos and recipes— important in a food company—and access content related to food, nutrition and health. More than 1,000 employees, including the CEO, have posted profiles. A pet photo show prompted more users to sign up. The company plans a more formal pet photo contest with prizes this year to drive more users to the tool.

Nestlé USA imposes only a few ground rules. For example, employees are barred from using the social network as a dating service or for selling products or services. In addition, if material considered inappropriate is posted, anyone can bring it to the attention of a governance committee. Bergen says there have been few such incidents, and in each case the material had been posted inadvertently.

Somewhere in Between

While Serena was sold on Facebook, a public site, and Dow and Nestlé USA adopted commercial solutions to exert more control, Siemens AG, based in Berlin and Munich, falls between the two ends of that spectrum

The U.S. subsidiary, Siemens Corp., in New York City, began to use internal blogs around the time of Hurricane Katrina, according to Jim Lukach, manager for internal online communications. Siemens has operations in the region impacted by the tempest, and its employees wanted to reach out to fellow workers. Internal blogging has since been expanded to various projects and other communication.

It was only a matter of time before social networking came to pass, Lukach says. The company embraces other Web 2.0 tools—including executive podcasts to workers—with the goal of making employees more productive, more collaborative and happier. One day, Lukach looked at Facebook and noticed there were nearly 3,000 Siemens workers on it who identify themselves as Siemens employees. The number has since risen to nearly 6,000.

Siemens neither promotes nor objects to employees using Facebook as an informal social network for the company. “We have considered proprietary social networking software,” Lukach says. “I would prefer a Facebook-like capability inside the firewall, and so would IT. But so far, it has not been a high priority.”

The company allows use of Facebook as an informal network, but not without some oversight. “We’re close to putting the finishing touches on social network users’ guidelines,” Lukach says. “We already have them for internal blogs.”

The number of workers using Facebook is a tiny fraction of Siemens’ 470,000 employees in 190 countries, including nearly 70,000 in the United States. When Lukach studied which Siemens workers use Facebook, he found that most were not in North America or Europe proper but in more distant locales such as Scandinavia, Turkey and the Middle East. Lukach has no explanation.

Making the Leap

Serena’s CEO Burton has no doubts about the value of social networking. “A corporate culture that fosters a sense of community and fun will ultimately help us get more done,” he says. “Companies that do not embrace social networking are making a huge mistake.”

Social networking is useful, but most companies are not ready to follow Serena, says Nova Newcomer, president of Blue Hill Solutions LLC, an enterprise communications and Web 2.0 consulting company in Portland, Ore. “If you look at the corporate environment, there is a lot of fear—and for good reasons— about proprietary information getting out if they use public sites. Using Facebook would be a huge leap for a lot of large companies. For most, the way to go is behind the firewall.”

The desire to use public tools usually does not come from HR professionals but from elsewhere in the company, Newcomer says. She leads workshops for corporate communications experts, who tend to be highly enthusiastic about Web 2.0 tools. Although a personal fan of these tools, Newcomer tempers enthusiasm among workshop attendees by urging them to “get real” about their organizational cultures.

As Newcomer sees them, corporate cultures range from autocratic to anarchic. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what end of the spectrum would relish Facebook. “If you put forth something that is a big stretch for the culture, then you can have headaches and growing pains,” she says. Hence, Newcomer says HR professionals have vital roles to play in determining the kind of tools a company might be ready for. “The caution belongs in HR,” she says. “They know a lot of the legal and cultural hitches.”

Bill Roberts is contributing editor for technology at HR Magazine.

Web Extras

SHRM articles:
HR Challenges in Virtual Worlds
(HR Magazine)

Counting on Collaboration
(HR Magazine)

The Changing Landscape
(Staffing Management)

SHRM research:
Weekly Survey: Online Profiling Tools
(September 2006)


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect