Social Media Tools Invade the Enterprise

By Dave Zielinski Jan 7, 2013
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Productivity is a key metric on the shop floor of Industrial Mold and Machine in Twinsburg, Ohio. But when manufacturing workers there wanted to collaborate with colleagues on ways to improve the output of their metal-cutting machines, they had to leave their workstations to access computer kiosks located around the plant.

That process was inefficient and a drag on productivity. By introducing iPads and
social networking tool Socialtext to the shop floor, workers now can report information they are seeing at machines right from workstations—and without interrupting their work. Both the tablets and PCs at managers’ desks access the same web-based information, which breaks down silos and improves teamwork. That collaboration ensures material and information arrive at machines at the right time.

The new access to “instant information” allowed the plant to make significant production gains. “There was tremendous improvement in the uptime of equipment because of improved collaboration, decision support and brainstorming solutions in real-time,” said Yvette Cameron, vice president and principal analyst of HCM Processes at Constellation Research, a technology research firm based in San Francisco that named Industrial Mold one of the winners of its 2012 “SuperNova” awards. The awards honor companies or teams who apply emerging or disruptive technologies to drive business value.

Beyond External Uses

Usually, social media networks aren’t associated with manufacturing floors or with use behind corporate firewalls. Typically, tools like LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter are used for employee recruiting or to interact with customers beyond an organization’s internal network.

That’s changing with the growing “consumerization” of corporate technology and the emergence of a new generation of task- and project-management tools known as social task management (STM).

These vendor platforms are designed to help employees work more efficiently in teams or across the enterprise within the flow of their daily work tasks. Often, STM tools supplement traditional project management software in ways that improve collaboration, speed knowledge sharing and better organize project information scattered across multiple communication channels.

In a 2012 report titled Getting Work Done With Social Task Management, Alan Lepofsky, a vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, chronicled how STM tools can help alleviate problems around creation of information silos, limited collaboration and “loss of context” when tools like e-mail, chat, Word documents, spreadsheets or presentations aren’t linked to tasks themselves, “but require people to switch from one tool to another as they work,” he wrote.

The user interfaces of STM tools are based on dashboards and activity streams that help track project or activity status, according to Lepofsky. They show all the recent events that have taken place like new tasks being added, tasks being completed, questions being asked, new files uploaded or pages created.

By integrating these social tools into the flow of employees’ daily work tasks, it’s easier for employees to find information they need “instead of looking in one place for assignments, another for conversations and another for content,” Lepofsky wrote.

Many of these tools fly under the radar of human resources, Cameron said, adding that it’s wise to monitor their use because they have employee engagement and performance management benefits. “I can almost guarantee that if HR were to conduct an organization-wide survey, it would find many socially enabled project and task management tools in use that they didn’t know about,” Cameron said.

Line managers implement these solutions to solve pressing business needs, she said, and the adoption of cloud-based social tools often doesn’t require the approval of information technology groups.

Other Internal Applications

The use of internal social networks goes beyond task and project management. In the case of Citi, the global banking company, such tools also are fueling idea generation and new product innovation.

In 2011, the company launched a “future of banking” challenge that encouraged all employees around the world to contribute new ideas to creating best-in-class products and services for customers. The challenge was deployed on a crowd-sourcing ideation platform called Spigit that allows employees to submit ideas, brainstorm with colleagues and vote on their favorite concepts.

Before the project, Citi didn’t have a scalable way for employees to exchange ideas with colleagues outside of their departments or regions. By the end of the campaign, nearly 50,000 employees from 97 countries had participated, producing more than 2,300 ideas. That performance helped the company capture one of Constellation’s SuperNova awards.

The initiative’s biggest bottom-line benefit? It used to be that a new Citi product concept had a development lifecycle of 18 to 24 months, but using the Spigit platform, some new concepts were prototyped and brought to an equivalent stage in just 10 weeks.

“Citi was blown away by the volume of employee engagement across the board, not just from certain titles or departments,” said Cameron. “That’s the beauty of social tools like this. Suddenly you can capitalize on the experience, wisdom and creativity of everyone in the enterprise.”

The Sustained-Use Challenge

One challenge organizations face is choosing which of these social tools to implement. Options include enterprise-wide collaboration tools like Jive, Yammer or IBM Connections; stand-alone applications designed for specific purposes like idea generation, task management or performance management; and social tools offered by existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) or human capital management providers, some of which are native and some integrated with other vendors.

While all the tools have strengths, piecing them together in user-friendly ways can be challenging, especially with stand-alone applications.

“You have to ask, ‘how are you not causing disruption in the workforce by introducing yet another social tool employees have to use to get work done?’ ” said Cameron.

There is another fly in the ointment amid rapid adoption of these tools, Cameron said—sustaining their use over long periods. “We often hear from companies that say they rolled out social tools, had successful pilot projects, the use peaked, but then it dropped off significantly,” she said.

That’s partly due to implementations not having well-defined business goals, Cameron said, and in other cases because the tools aren’t integrated into daily work flows or activity streams.

If someone is working inside a customer relationship management (CRM) application, for example, and wants to save a file to Box—an online file sharing service—for other distributed team members to access, that process should be embedded in the work flow. If you have to leave the application to do it, it becomes an impediment to use,” Cameron said.

Another way to sustain adoption of social tools is to make old ways of information sharing off-limits after a period of migration to new solutions, she said.

“It might be requiring everyone to store documents in a new collaborative workspace rather than using things like e-mail attachments,” Cameron said. “Old habits die hard. Once people start to see the benefits of these social tools, they come to embrace them and it gradually becomes a new habit.”

Wave of the Future
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Cameron believes the use of social tools will continue to grow as the technology evolves, the industry matures and more tech-savvy Millennials move into management roles.

“The way we use technology in our personal lives is informing and infusing the way we use technology in our work lives,” said Cameron. “The types of work challenges that have plagued us in the past, such as version control on spreadsheets, don’t need to plague us anymore, because the technology now enables much more efficiency.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minn.

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