5 areas where social media shines

For HR, social tools can do plenty of heavy lifting
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/28/2014

GETTING SOCIAL: A panel of five subject-matter experts spoke about social media at a recent Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto, sharing their organizations’ experiences with social media and presenting new ideas about using social tools in the HR function.

The jury is in on social media, particularly when it comes to the human resources function. But despite the many benefits, some HR professionals and C-suite leaders still need to be convinced to adopt these social tools and integrate them into day-to-day business practices.

That was the central message of a special panel discussion at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event held in Toronto in November.

Five expert panellists joined SCNetwork members to share their experiences with social media within the HR function, and to talk about the areas where these social tools can have a truly transformative effect.


One of the areas where social tools are invaluable is mentoring, according to Brad Antle, global program delivery manager, IBM leadership development in Toronto. IBM has more than 430,000 employees worldwide.

“Prior to... the introduction of the Internet, mentoring had been done the same way at IBM for many years,” said Antle. “It was much like Noah’s ark, if you like. You’d go in two by two, you’d sort of find that mentor, and then really the benefit was between the mentor and mentee only.”

But with the advent of social media, IBM wanted to change that model. It launched a number of new training initiatives along with an internal “hub” that connects all IBM employees — and links them up with mentors.

“This is a community where all 400,000 IBMers can practise being social,” said Antle. “So with this, they can form connections directly based on business and clients’ needs, and it really gets the layers of the organization out of the way. You get connected to people right away without having to go through the hierarchy.”

IBM completed a social business risk assessment in 2010, and it has a number of subject-matter experts (SMEs) and ambassadors to keep the momentum going.

“This community now can provide mentoring in many different ways. You can do one-on-one, because you can locate those mentors, you can do one-to-many though the use of blogs, and many-to-many with the use of forums,” he said.

“Mentoring is a naturally social event and to enable social mentoring, you’ve got to first create that social culture.”

Performance management

Another useful application of social media is for collaborative performance management, according to Raymond Shih, Toronto-based program manager at Grand Challenges Canada, a federally funded startup with a focus on global health initiatives and 20 full-time employees.

“We faced a problem that was not unique to our startup — that’s not unique at all — and that is how do you conduct performance management in such a small organization?” said Shih.

Social tools turned out to be the solution, and Grand Challenges now uses a performance management system that is socially based.

“We used a 360-degree feedback performance review and objectives modules… and this doesn’t look like an enterprise system. It looks more like Gmail or Facebook,” said Shih. “You don’t have to wait until the HR year starts to start filling these in — you can start attaching comments, feedback on individual objectives… throughout the year, and these kind of collect.”

With the new system, you can also “tag” people on group projects and visually compare the differences between your self-assessment and your manager’s assessment.

The organization saw some valuable benefits to the new system almost immediately, including a lot of time saved, a lot less paperwork — and a lot more useful information from employees.

“The information’s much more robust because instead of employees focusing on trying to fill out all these templates, which may or may not be useful, they’re able to just log in and click and just start typing away,” said Shih.

“Social media generates a lot of data. When you can comment all the time on anything… there’s a lot of text and a lot of data points, and I’d be lying if I said we’d really figured out or optimized how we’d actually analyze that data, but the good thing is the data’s there.”


Using social media to develop a transparent, clear and approachable leadership style is another way these tools can be extremely effective, according to Julia Hanigsberg, vice-president of administration and finance at Ryerson University in Toronto, which has more than 33,000 full-time undergraduates and about 770 full-time faculty.

“We have a strategy of putting people first. And part of that, for me, really translated into a leadership style that generated transparency, generated a sense of authenticity, that people would know who I am as a leader, what I stand for, what I’m about, how that connects into Ryerson’s strategy, and how they can interface with me,” she said.

“The other thing it meant for me was how would I be able to engage my senior team, my team of leaders, to be more open, more transparent, more visible across the organization and across our sector?”

Three tools were instrumental in her social media leadership: Twitter, blogging and a social tool called SoapBox, which allows for customer or stakeholder feedback.

“By having a Twitter presence… I have a direct line of communication into my entire Ryerson community and well beyond,” said Hanigsberg.

“So what I find (is)… people are constantly coming up to me and they know me. They feel like they know me, and in a certain sense they know me in an important way, and that’s because in my personality on Twitter and my personality in my blogs… it is very important that I’m authentic and I’m being me in all of those interactions.”

And it’s pretty easy to figure out what works and what doesn’t, she said.

“The nice thing about social media is it does allow you to test, and you can test and get pretty instant feedback about things and about what’s working and what isn’t.”


Recruiting is another area where social media can have a dramatic impact, extending reach while lowering costs, according to Ann Barrett, director of e-recruitment and social media strategy at Sun Life Financial in Toronto. The company has about 15,000 employees globally.

“From a hiring perspective… everybody wants to hire the best talent,” she said. “Where are these people? Where are the candidates that we’re hiring coming from? What we started to see was a shift in the marketplace. Traditionally, we had candidates that would come from job boards, we would have them supplied by staffing agencies. But what we started to see was job aggregators like Indeed, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etcetera… we started to get tangible results from these sources.”

Sun Life began to cross-promote its jobs by posting on a number of different social channels, while simultaneously focusing on effective branding.

“If you think about the fact that over 80 per cent of candidates out there are passive and not actively looking for jobs, it’s important to understand that using social media channels to maybe cross-market that information makes it more visible,” said Barrett. “These channels are, for the most part, free. You’re not paying a job board.”

It’s increasingly more important to have a recruiting presence on social platforms because that’s where many talented candidates are primarily focusing their searches. And it’s not just the newer or less experienced millennial candidates, she said.

“A lot of people just think stereotypically that younger people are on social media… and while that is absolutely true, one of the things that we’re starting to see from a shift perspective is a lot of the baby boomers are adopting social media.”


One of the most important applications of social tools is for timely communications with customers, according to Robert Underwood, Toronto-based president and CEO of Actra Fraternal Benefits Society, an insurance and retirement plan company for performance artists.

“If we didn’t take a place on Facebook, we’d end up there anyway. The plan was to head off negative press and member complaints on the front end, and turn what could have been reputational disaster into positive member dialogue,” he said.

“Our social media analyst monitors our accounts 24-7, which is absolutely key and critical.”

The objective was to promote open communications with members, be an active participant in conversations about Actra’s brand, and respond with fast, positive solutions when a problem would arise.

Of course, there are always some risks involved when moving a business platform onto social media, said Underwood.

“Taking sensitive information offline is absolutely essential.”

But the benefits far outweigh the risks — especially when social media allows them to resolve complaints and frustrations so quickly.

“When members feel the service is not up to snuff, Facebook is often their first stop. And the key is to catch the comments early and, again, the key is to engage the members in positive dialogue,” he said. “The best result we can expect… is turning a complaint into a compliment.”


Social media could eliminate key flaws

By Dave Crisp (Organizational Effectiveness)

An all-too-recurrent theme in much of what we despair of in organizations is how much effectiveness is undermined by simple, human gaps. We develop good policies for performance appraisal, succession planning, retention, recognition and more, and despite knowing that “once a year” isn’t enough, we find everyone focusing on just that — the once-a-year, on-the-record discussion and record-keeping requirement and nothing else — even though people complain bitterly about it and feel the process should be different.

Take that problem and multiply it by every people policy that matters and you come close to understanding why so many organizations flounder along with average or worse results. Our lever for achieving success is through people and we consistently fail to do all that it takes to keep those people engaged, excited, innovating and staying with us. We continually hear “There isn’t time” and “I’m afraid to open up topics I can’t answer.”

The fact is social media opens such discussions, whether you feel you have the time and ability to address them or not. Without channels that could help you manage them, these potential conversations may be highly haphazard, disjointed, misrepresentative and one-sided. Only you can make them two-sided. We’re being dragged into this reluctantly, but inevitably.

The fact is social media also opens those discussions, whether you pay attention or not. They will occur on other sites if you don’t provide venues. Then your chore of finding out what’s being said multiplies — and, take note, all this is in writing. And even if that writing may seem somewhat ephemeral and fleeting, once it’s out there, it doesn’t go away.

Anyone searching for information about you is likely to stumble across it — unless you channel ongoing discussion into larger buckets that are more likely to turn up in current searches. Your only option to manage much of this is to respond in an orderly, ongoing way and, above all, authentically and transparently as much as possible without relying on stock answers and advertising to do the job.

Social media tools haven’t taken over in every corner of our workplaces and customer relations... yet. But it seems likely they will. So the question becomes who will we trust to respond? (And it can’t be just one person, there’s simply too much coming at us). How will we train them, what policies will we rely on, what level of staffing is needed to enable continual conversation, what will be in-house and what public? How much of this needs to be spelled out? Is it added to job descriptions? Are there dedicated social media reps or are the tasks distributed? What percentage of time makes sense for various levels of staff to put into this?. Will one person typically speak for a team?

All these questions are arriving on our doorstep as we speak. Early adopters are trying out variations and discovering what seems to work for them. But what will they evolve into in future years? The Strategic Capability Network event was a great chance to hear a few organizations that are making parts of this work. It’s a session I will listen to again via the recording to try to get a handle on what’s working and what’s missing.

It all sounds so simple when it works, but who has the time (the perennial question in a new guise, but increasingly unavoidable)? Yet these individuals seem to have found unique answers.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.

New tactical tools or strategic practice?

By Trish Maguire (Leadership In Action)

As social networking continues to flourish, sorting through the choices, statistics and hype is proving to be a challenge for even the most skilled of leaders.

Recently, we had the benefit of hearing about real-time experiences in using social media from leaders representing IBM, Grand Challenges Canada, Sun Life, Actra Fraternal Benefits Society and Ryerson University. In listening to their different journeys, I began to wonder how many leaders see social media as a tactical tool versus a strategic practice. For some, the decision has been to take a cross-functional strategic approach, whereas others have made it a personal leadership mission.

Regardless of the approach, core themes emerge that encourage leaders who may still have reservations about adopting social media initiatives. For example, a common starting point — beyond deciding on the fundamental purpose — is for leaders to think about what audience they wish to engage with and how. Is it employees, customers — or both? Is the approach to be more strategic and leverage social media to attract and engage people? Or perhaps they want to use it to support real business objectives. If it’s the latter, what key measurements need to be put in place to evaluate and track effectiveness? Furthermore, once the results and feedback are compiled and examined, how responsive will the leadership team be to repeat, remove, revise or recreate any of the initiatives?

The more I understand how social media can positively impact workplaces, the more I see an opportunity for leaders to reveal a human side to their businesses.

If this is a potential and actionable proposition for your organization, and you want to use social media to build stronger engagement, a consistent mantra from social media gurus is you have to develop compelling and truthful content that is conversational and generates an emotional response. The question then is how do leaders want to appeal to peoples’ emotions? Is it to inspire, to win people’s hearts and loyalty — or to share business information and provide restricted access to company programs?

Whatever the objective is, what content, objectives and resources will need to be determined? How important will it be for your organization to think about how you might participate in Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Google+ or Pinterest? If that is part of your strategy, how might the participation need to be different depending on the social media site? What works on Facebook doesn’t necessarily work on LinkedIn, for example.

Leaders who have mastered the art of listening to their audience already know where and how to actively use social media effectively and efficiently. However, as we go into 2014, I encourage every leader to take a few moments and imagine what the workplace of tomorrow could look like when social media becomes a relevant and integral part of everyone’s job, irrespective of their title.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at synergyx@sympatico.ca.

Go ahead and try it – you’ll like it

By Karen Gorsline (Strategic Capability)

Five speakers from five very different companies described how their organizations are using social media to meet their business needs.

Each highlighted a different use: mentoring and supporting staff development, performance management, shaping the corporate culture, promoting employee engagement and streamlining and promoting a customer-oriented business model. Each identified challenges they faced and lessons learned.

Stepping back from the individual cases, what did they have in common, and what are some key themes that can be applied by any organization?

Like rock ‘n’ roll, social media is here to stay: While there are differing levels of usage intensity and levels of sophistication, social media is being adopted by almost all segments of society at a global level. Ignoring social media as a tool for communicating and tapping into the knowledge of employees and customers overlooks opportunities for more effective and informed operations. Corporations ignore social media at their peril and risk the fate of the dodo bird.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained: Absolutely there are challenges and risks, but the greater risk is to do nothing. Like investing, money put under the mattress, while secure, erodes in value. Avoiding risk is not a solution, just as not managing the risk is naive and reckless. Organizations need to:

•do their homework and understand how social media works

•identify what initial trials will be most productive

•think about what standards and guidelines need to be developed at various stages

•establish means to monitor activity and mitigate risk

•respond to bumps in the road

•establish a discipline to learn from dead-end attempts.

Make it your own: Each of these organizations recognized their current states, their own unique cultures and businesses, and identified the areas where the most benefit could be obtained from using social media. They did their own research and willingly shared their own experience, but there is no denying that successfully adopting an approach to social media requires a good organizational fit. As inspiring as one organization’s experience may be, or as cool as a tool or application is, effective implementation requires careful analysis of how the specific application of social media will play out in an organization’s unique environment. By making the social media application its own, an organization can maximize its own brand and fit with its culture.

Inspiration alone is not enough: In each of the five organizations, there was an inspiration or vision of how they could use social media to make a difference. But each organization’s story illustrated investment and effort, persistence, positive response to challenges and setbacks, and co-ordinated effort to support introduction, implementation and sustained growth of their social media application.

Look around. Seniors are using social media to connect with common interest groups and children or grandchildren who don’t return calls. Consumers are using social media extensively to obtain information and services. Younger people rely on smart phones.

The overwhelming message is: Try it — you’ll like it.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

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