Social media: Embrace it, don’t fear it

Technology allows organizations to reach new audiences, improve collaboration
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/04/2010

Workplace changes: Steve Prentice, president of consulting firm Bristall Morgan, spoke in August at a Strategic Capability Network event about the 10 ways workplaces have changed, the most significant change being social media. For more information, visit

Social media: Embrace it, don’t fear it

What won’t change: People will be people (Strategic capability)

Social media can restore ‘intellectual interest’ (Leadership in action)

Human touch of social media not enough (Organizational effectiveness)

Next executive series

Social media: Embrace it, don’t fear it

By Shannon Klie

While some business leaders still see Facebook and Twitter as “fluff,” it would be dangerous to dismiss social media and its power, according to Steve Prentice, president of consulting firm Bristall Morgan in Toronto.

Old Spice deodorant and body wash found a whole new customer base after the company’s “The man your man could smell like” campaign with Isaiah Mustafa went viral on YouTube and sales doubled, he said.

“Social media is here to stay,” said Prentice, who talked about the ways the workplace has changed at a Strategic Capability Network event in August. “It’s not a fad. It’s something that permeates all working environments.”

One of the main fears holding employers back from embracing social media is the potential harm it could do to productivity. But that fear is based on the assumption employees maintain the same level of focus and energy for eight to nine hours, said Prentice.

“This is just not possible,” he said.

Energy levels fluctuate throughout the day and before the Internet there were water coolers and coffee breaks to give employees a chance to take a break from work and interact socially, he said.

Twitter and Facebook use actually improves work productivity by giving employees an opportunity to take short breaks every hour or so and then refocus their concentration, according to a 2009 PC World report on a University of Melbourne study.

“That’s the recipe for engaged and focused employees in the workplace,” said Prentice.

Most people experience a drop in energy at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., so these are the worst times to schedule meetings, said Prentice. People also need time away from screens — computers and mobile devices — to give their brains a chance to “re-expand,” he said. So allowing employees the freedom to get up and move around is important to keep their creative juices flowing, he said.

Managers also need to look at the best and worst times for particular employees to do certain tasks. Is an employee at her best in the morning or afternoon? Is she more productive alone at home or surrounded by colleagues in the office?

The workplace is no longer one place or time, said Prentice. With advances in technology, employees can work at any time, from any location. Online virtual worlds such as Second Life can even connect employees in disparate physical locations and be used for scenario-based training.

Social media also gives organizations a great platform for communication and knowledge-sharing among employees. A social network where employees can post information, both professional and personal, can reveal hidden talents and strengths that might help other people in an organization.

“It can be a huge way of discovering the potential and abilities of your people,” he said.

The fact an employee is also a scuba instructor can give a management team insight into what kind of employee he is — he pays attention to detail, takes calculated risks and is able to share his knowledge with others. All of these skills indicate he’s a prime candidate for the leadership track, said Prentice.

Wikis and video distribution sites such as YouTube are ways for employees to share their expertise and add to each other’s work, creating innovation. They also help organizations retain corporate knowledge when employees leave and serve as a training tool, said Prentice.

While email has been in the workplace for less than 20 years, interactive chat platforms are replacing it as a communication medium, providing real-time, relevant communication in a way email can’t, said Prentice.

And employees can use Twitter to find and follow industry experts to keep their knowledge up to date, he said. Organizations can also use this site to find out what people are saying about the organization and its products or for real-time customer and product support, as seen with electronics retailer Best Buy’s Twelpforce, said Prentice.

“You need to embrace how technology works in a positive fashion,” he said.

With so many different generations and cultures in the workplace, managers need to realize different people are going to have different needs. Some are more formal while others are more casual and appreciate the warmer approach of a Facebook fan page over a corporate website. Some employees need a pen and paper to communicate their thoughts, others can only express themselves by text messages, he said.

Employees are also primarily loyal to themselves, not an organization, and are looking for active career management, said Prentice. Professional networking sites such as LinkedIn allow employees to connect with people in different organizations and industries like never before.

Organizations can take advantage of these sites to reach out to potential candidates and stay in touch with former employees, said Prentice. They can also use status updates to keep the marketplace updated on what’s new, from deals to product launches.

“It reminds your client base and prospect base that you’re still alive, you’re still busy, you’re still successful. It’s a warm but passive way of keeping in touch,” he said.

All of these advances in technology do have their drawbacks, said Prentice. Bullying and harassment can reach victims anytime, anywhere through social networks and mobile devices, he said. Some websites allow people to post bullying or harassing messages anonymously, making it even harder for victims to fight back.

For some, technology has led to ambiguous communication and affected people’s ability to formulate their thoughts, said Prentice. People are also fearful of connecting verbally, even though a face-to-face or phone conversation can be much more efficient than emails, he said.

Some people are so tied to their BlackBerrys and other PDAs that getting their attention in a meeting is next to impossible as they constantly check for updates, said Prentice. Asking them to turn off their device is even worse because then they’re constantly worrying about what messages they might be missing and aren’t focused on the meeting.

“If you know your staff needs to be in touch, build it into the meeting agenda,” said Prentice.

This could include giving them a five-minute data break to check their BlackBerrys and come back to the meeting re-focused.

“They can relieve themselves of the stress and the fear of what they might be missing,” said Prentice.

Return to top of the page

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

What won’t change: People will be people (Strategic capability)

By Karen Gorsline

During his presentation, Steve Prentice talked about the top 10 ways the workplace has changed, including social networks, increasing diversity and the rise of bullying and harassment.

But then he added an 11th point — the one way it hasn’t changed: “People will be people.” This point is the most revealing in terms of what organizations need to remember and understand in a rapidly changing and shrinking world.

People have different needs and attitudes toward work. They need downtime. People are messy, procrastinate and are not always organized. They are affected by the realities of life: love, family commitments, bills, chores, life crises and illnesses. They all are things that draw attention away from work commitments. However, the fact that people put a human face on their work is often overlooked. Where people interact with a tool, with technology, they make it work for them and “humanize” their relationship with it.

Technological advancement has always been focused on using human knowledge to accomplish something. It has occurred as a result of curiosity, trial and error and a drive to achieve something different. These are all human characteristics. The technical advance then becomes commercialized and a commodity. But just as fast as it becomes standardized, it then adapts, customizes and evolves as people transform it to meet their needs.

For example, early Internet activity came out of the academic world. It gave researchers a way to share and compare information with colleagues around the world. Business saw the value of this innovation and adapted the technology to meet its needs. Corporate email replaced faxes, phone calls and face-to-face encounters. To a large extent, the communication became transactional and lost the social connection of the human face, voice and nuanced interaction.

Then we saw the arrival of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. People were reaching out to people, making technology meet their needs. Information-sharing moved from transactional to an exploration of interests and personal needs: Wikipedia, maps, networks of knitters or gardeners, keeping in touch with friends and relatives around the world. The Internet is being used to pursue personal interests and, in some cases, vices or bad habits. It reflects the humans who use it.

There are numerous organizational implications of this interface between the technology/information age explosion and people:

Technology has broken down work-life barriers. People will use technology at the office to pursue personal interests, such as watching a sporting event, and use Google, Facebook or Twitter. Get used to it — all of this “wasting of time” comes with a corporate benefit. People learn to use the technology more effectively in their work lives and work also invades their personal time. (Look no further than the BlackBerry.)

People can’t stay plugged into work all the time: Using technology to meet their personal obligations, keep in touch with family or do a bit of shopping is more effective than the distraction and worry associated with not taking care of personal business. It is better to be focused 85 per cent of the time than distracted and worried 85 per cent of the time. What might seem like a time loss could result in an increase in productivity. People can still be held accountable for their work and managers can focus on managing adults as adults.

Personalizing tools: Sterile, faceless, transactional technology works for work, but does not work for the people who do the work. People want to personalize their tools and even, on occasion, name them. Technology design must take into consideration human needs for interaction and feedback.

Companies that understand the relationships humans create with their tools will also understand it is not in their best interests to drive out human curiosity, experimentation and the need to accomplish something of personal value. Like Apple, they will learn to design tools (and work) to both accommodate and leverage the interface. People do the work and “people will be people.”

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. 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

Return to top of the page

Social media can restore ‘intellectual interest’ (Leadership in action)

By Trish Maguire

Will social media prove to be the technological invention that accelerates change in the workplace just as the Gutenberg press changed the world of printing in 1438 and helped spread learning to the masses? With an effective strategy, policy and the aid of a resource ambassador, Steve Prentice believes it can.

The thought of Facebook, Twitter or any other social media platform being taken seriously and penetrating the corporate world in any significant manner has many leadership teams running for cover. Moreover, legal issues with security, privacy, content ownership and compliance fuel reservation and skepticism among many organizations. But the reality is social media has triggered a sweeping change in how people communicate.

For Prentice, the prospect of leaders leveraging social media in the workplace is an exciting one. It presents new channels and methods of reaching out and inviting open input, not just from consumers and clients but, more importantly, employees. Unfortunately, for some leaders, the paradox is they seek input but, at the same time, have trouble with it. Prentice presents a convincing argument, however, that social media offers a potential opportunity for leaders to learn and understand how this technology can stimulate participation, collaboration and encourage meaningful connections across an organization.

As an HR leader, imagine the shift in human dynamics across an organization when instead of using the traditional, direct executive email message that is pushed out to employees, you invite them to engage in open conversation?

Imagine the benefits that could be gained by creating learning opportunities among peers, initiating targeted audience collaboration and encouraging real feedback. How do you think employees would respond to being openly asked for their suggestions to improve an organization’s operational and innovation platforms? Is it possible individual and team performance could improve? Is it possible employee engagement could improve?

The Vancouver Police Department, Ontario Public Service and Xerox are examples of organizations that are exploring how and where to incorporate social media into common workplace applications. All three are using social networking and virtual worlds for recruiting, onboarding, distance learning, collaborating and connecting with people in new ways. Additional applications some organizations are reportedly considering are research and development, team-building exercises, meetings, events and conferences.

As this tool continues to evolve at an accelerated rate, it has the potential to change the way people think about work. Prentice challenges leaders to seriously explore how social media can: stimulate interest and involvement; encourage greater communication and employee engagement; drive business improvements; foster the sharing of knowledge; and capture an organization’s collective intelligence.

As an HR leader, are you ready to explore how social media can be a catalyst for restoring not only the human touch but the “intellectual interest” in your workplace?

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on developing customized talent management strategies for small entrepreneurial businesses. She can be reached at

Return to top of the page

Human touch of social media not enough (Organizational effectiveness)

By Tracy Cocivera

Social media has replaced the water cooler in the workplace. Steve Prentice confirmed that in his presentation and said organizations can incorporate social media but still maintain high levels of productivity.

For example, companies can use a Facebook-style internal platform, which can lead to the reduction of email and the increase of more real-time group dialogue. People can connect with enthusiasm and warmth when they have online, two-way dialogue. Prentice argued social media can reinstall the human touch.

Given the accelerated pace of change and the focus on quick and immediate results, social media could end up replacing in-person communication by default. But is this “human touch” enough to facilitate effective and sustainable organizational change?

Robert J. Marshak, author of Covert Processes at Work, identified six dimensions that are always involved in organizational change:

• reasons (rational and analytic logics)

• politics (individual and group interests)

• inspirations (values-based and visionary aspirations)

• emotions (affective and reactive feelings)

• mindsets (guiding beliefs and assumptions)

• psychodynamics (anxiety-based and unconscious defences).

All organizational change involves overt and covert processes. While many change agents rely primarily on rational approaches to foster organizational change, most change involves significant, non-rational dynamics and processes.

Leaders need to manage both overt and covert processes to drive effective and sustainable change. Although covert processes, by their very nature, are hidden, it is possible to detect them at work.

“The cues and clues that something is missing is a function of considering the expected patterns of behaviour, given the specific context of a situation, and then noting any emphases or omission in those patterns,” said Marshak.

This enables leaders to see, hear or feel what is missing and possibly covert.

When social media is used to facilitate organizational change, it only enables leaders to attend to the overt processes or the reason dimension of change. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, for leaders to capture the underlying politics, inspirations, emotions, mindsets and psychodynamics within the change process using social media. Social media is unable to let leaders fully see, hear or feel the non-rational dimensions of organizational change. Face-to-face, real-time human interactions are necessary and important for leaders to be able to effectively deal with both the overt and covert processes involved in any organizational change.

Compared to email, Prentice is accurate in stating the human touch has been reinstalled in social media. However, the amount of human touch that occurs within the social media platform is not enough to enable leaders to detect covert processes. More human touch is required for leaders to manage the underlying dynamics of change. Further, social media cannot replace face-to-face, real-time interactions for organizational change initiatives to succeed.

Tracy Cocivera is a commentator on organizational effectiveness for SCNetwork and a senior consultant in leadership solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. As a business psychologist, she helps executives and teams enhance their effectiveness and create more value for their organizations. She can be reached at

Next executive series

Would you like to attend one of the upcoming Breakfast Series in Toronto? Here’s a look at upcoming sessions:

October: Into the blast furnace, with Courtney Pratt, who will share stories about Stelco’s journey through bankruptcy protection (Oct. 21).

November: Building leadership capabilities, with Jackie Greaner of Towers Watson and Kelly Neri of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (Nov. 16).

Visit for more information.

Return to top of the page

Add Comment

  • *
  • *
  • *
  • *