The age of mass collaboration: social technologies and employee research

As channels of interpersonal communication and collaboration become ever more dynamic and mediated by technology, there is an increased need for organisations to adopt new working practices if they are to remain efficient and prosperous. Effective internal communications within organisations have always been strong determining factors in whether business operations run smoothly.

To properly understand working life within an organisation, the social technologies used within them must now be looked at, not only as objects of information in themselves, but also as valuable tools that facilitate research. Social technologies are increasingly offering pioneering ways of enhancing collaboration and generating feedback. This is exciting not only because it provides research participants with a more engaging experience, but also because it creates broader opportunities for using their input. Capturing people’s interactions through social technology, and applying the latest text analytics, offers a new and rich source of insight. We are on the cusp of a real paradigm shift in the way organisations do research with their people: it’s becoming more social.

There are three recent developments in the following fields of expertise that contribute to new approaches in employee research: social media, text analysis and graphical user interfaces.

Firstly, the advance of social media is having profound implications on organisations. I’m not just talking about social networking sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Yammer, etc; social media in its broadest sense is creeping its way into many aspects of our working lives. I find this exciting because capturing the interactions between people in a transparent and self-policing environment is a very powerful feedback mechanism.

Secondly, the increasing use of social media has had a knock-on effect on the quality and use of text and sentiment analysis to efficiently process huge amounts of written feedback. Many organisations are already embracing these advances to generate insight from their external customers/consumers. However, internally, organisations are lagging behind – this is, of course, no surprise. There are many barriers to organisations adopting social media practices for internal use and there is much work to be done in this area.

Thirdly, people often think about data visualisation as an output to aid the interpretation of data. However, data visualisation can now also be used as a means of input and control. This has huge advantages over traditional lists of comments used in discussion forums and message boards – even the comments at the bottom of this page. Linear lists of comments have many limitations. The worst is that they can quickly grow to overwhelming proportions. Without a means of effective navigation, many comments may not ever be read – people do not have an equal chance of being heard.

To exemplify these developments (and provide some practical recommendations for people who are introducing, or expanding the use of social media in organisations), Silverman Research and Unilever conducted an open access research project that uses the wisdom of crowds to generate insight about the barriers organisations face in adopting social media practices in the work place. “The Social Media Garden” study ran from February to April 2012, achieving nearly 650 participants, and identifying 16 barriers typically faced by organisations.

Four barriers were identified as particularly important: failure of leadership to accept new ways of working, difficulties in creating a robust business case / showingreturn on investment, lack of knowledge and understanding about social media, and fear of the unknown.

In the same way that machine technology forced the rise of mass production in the industrial revolution, social technology is driving us headlong into the age of mass collaboration and mass transparency. For most organisations this is hard to swallow. However, the ability for internal communications professionals to help leaders recognise organisational and environmental shifts will ultimately help organisations deal with the sociocultural changes they face. The landscape of employee research and daily working life are changing as a cause of technology, and as such this occurrence should be seen as an opportunity for organisational growth, adaptation and change.

Written by Michael Silverman who will be speaking at the CIPR Internal Communications conference 2012 on 7th November at the Kia Oval in London. You can follow the conference on Twitter: #ciprinside

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