Sparking a Revolution

When it comes to social media in the workplace, HR is just starting to learn to stop being the police -- and to start joining in the charge toward change.

Thursday, December 6, 2012
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At Marsh, one of the largest insurance brokers and risk advisers in the world, a new phrase is making the rounds: "knowledge fracking."

Coined by Ben Brooks, the company's vice president and practice leader for human capital performance, it refers to the way in which New York-based Marsh's proprietary social network has encouraged vital bits of knowledge that had previously sat hidden in different pockets of the organization to bubble to the surface, where they can be shared among employees -- similar to the "fracking"  method used by drilling companies to inject high-powered jets of water into the earth to get at precious reserves of natural gas."The things that were typically sequestered on employees' hard drives and [in their] email bins are now available to everyone," says Brooks.

Marsh's social network is called Marsh University, or MU for short. Launched in 2010, MU -- which offers tools for blogging, online discussions, video presentations, search and the like -- lets Marsh's 26,000 employees harness the experience and brainpower of their colleagues to get work done. More than 350 employee-discussion groups are now active on MU, says Brooks, who oversees the network.

After posting queries to MU, employees have been able to help their clients obtain affordable insurance coverage in markets they wouldn't have otherwise considered. Managers have shared tips and videos designed to teach millennial employees about the finer points of doing business. Marketing and creative departments have tossed around ideas for improving corporate logos. Soon-to-retire employees have used the tools on MU to create engaging presentations for sharing their body of knowledge with their colleagues rather than simply taking it with them once they walk out the door.

MU does what Marsh -- and many other companies -- can no longer do the old-fashioned way, much as they'd like to, says Laurie Ledford, CHRO of Marsh & McLennan Cos., Marsh's parent company.

"The idea of what used to work no longer works," says Ledford. "Companies can't afford to bring people together face-to-face as they once did."

At the same time, global businesses such as Marsh -- which has offices in more than 100 countries -- are struggling to manage language and cultural issues. Then there's the hunger many employees have to reach out to one another -- to learn from colleagues who've dealt with similar work problems or who may offer a different take on a seemingly intractable problem, she says.

"Marsh employees yearn to collaborate -- MU lets them do that," says Ledford.

Social-media tools such as MU let employees forge connections in a world that's been streamlined and downsized -- and it's a process that HR, not IT, should be driving, says Marcia Conner, a former executive at Microsoft and PeopleSoft who's now a social-media consultant and author of a new book, The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations through Social Media.

Curiously, though, when speaking to executives about social media, Conner often notices something missing from her audiences: HR leaders.

"They've chosen to get out of the conversation," she says. "They decline to be part of steering committees on social-media strategy. And that's horrible, because other people in the organization need HR to be there."

By declining to participate, HR leaders are missing the opportunity to be active participants in, and drivers of, "the most powerful people-connection tool organizations have had in decades, if not forever," says Conner.

Though the social phenomenon is starting to catch on among some HR leaders, many don't give it the attention it deserves, citing other things on their plate that occupy their agenda. Others say they consider social media to be a technology issue that lies within IT's realm.

Conner argues that couldn't be further from the truth. "The technology is only the means, not the end," she says. "My counsel to HR is that you should not be viewing social media as an additive, as one more thing -- not when it is replacing outmoded ways of getting work done, as it is in the organizations that are making the best use of it."

"Why Are We Doing This?"

When it comes to being part of a social-media strategy, HR must learn to focus on what's best for the business -- not HR, says Heathre Moler, global director of HR at ETS-Lindgren, a Cedar Park, Texas-based electrical-systems manufacturer. 

Moler was recently asked to help solve a problem: Nearly everyone at ETS-Lindgren, it seemed, hated the company's existing process for conducting performance reviews -- especially the company's president.

"He asked me, 'What is the purpose of these annual reviews, and what are we getting out of them?' " says Moler. "He was adamant that we had to find a better way of managing performance. And I agreed with him."

Working closely with a cross-functional team from within the company, Moler helped select a new system called (previously known as Rypple), from San Francisco-based, that utilizes social networking to improve collaboration and encourage regular feedback.

Rather than conducting once-a-year reviews, managers set individual and team goals, then monitor employees' progress against those goals in real time, provide immediate feedback and recognize team members who meet or exceed them.  

Because managers and employees now use (which went live at ETS-Lindgren last December) on a regular basis to set and monitor goals, it frees managers from having to go into an unfamiliar HR system simply to manage their talent, says Moler.

With 900 employees spread across 11 locations around the world, ETS-Lindgren is a highly decentralized company that must, nevertheless, deliver a consistent level of service and quality to its global customers, says Moler. The new system is intended to help the company get where it needs to be by turning managers into coaches and ensuring employees are tightly connected to organizational goals, she says. and social-networking systems like it -- including those available from Globoforce, SAP SuccessFactors, Silkroad, Saba and Oracle -- are changing the very nature of how work gets done, says Yvette Cameron, vice president and principal analyst at San Francisco-based Constellation Research Inc.

"I call it 'social task management,' " she says. "The ability to share your status with teams, solicit input, feedback and support from other team members and to really derive some level of insight into how the work you're doing aligns to the larger organization's goals and initiatives -- I think that's phenomenal." 

At ETS-Lindgren, Moler continually reiterates that really is more about the everyday work that employees do than it is an HR system, she says.

"It's not used for workforce planning; we have a separate system for that -- although we can pull in some of the data from for our HR needs," she says. "But it's not the primary purpose."

Asked what advice she has for HR leaders, Moler -- who's worked in HR since 1997 -- replies that they may need to "loosen their HR hat a little bit."

"Sometimes, the HR hat's on a little too tight -- there's a tendency for HR to get caught up in wanting to have all these reports and rules and policies," she says. "I think we have to step back and think more about what works for the company and managers rather than what's going to work best for HR. That's why it's so important to have conversations with business leaders about what their needs are."

"Dawn of a New Day"

At Deloitte, healthcare reform has posed many tough-to-answer questions -- as it has at many organizations. Luckily, for employees at the New York-based professional-services firm, they can post questions to "D Street," the company's internal social-networking system, and get them answered by Deloitte's in-house doctors, nurse practitioners and insurance executives, says Patricia Romeo, who oversees D Street and works within HR.

"We've set up a 'healthcare-reform community' on D Street, where we pull together all of Deloitte's healthcare resources into this one area, host these robust discussions between experts and pull in feeds from a variety of sources, like, and get people engaged in conversations on this topic across all the boundaries of our company," she says.

Jim Lundy believes enterprise social networks such as Deloitte's and Marsh's have the power to transform organizations and HR.

"[Having profiles uploaded to such networks] lets you find someone at your company who can help you with a project who you never knew even existed before," says Lundy, a former Gartner analyst who formed Palo Alto, Calif.-based Aragon Consulting last year. "It's like the dawn of a new day for HR."

He believes social networks let HR answer the following questions: Where is the single source of truth for people? What information do we want to share about people within the organization, and how do we do that?

And, Lundy adds, as the strength of a network grows, HR will be able to identify the people most active within it -- the high-potential candidates who may not have been discovered yet.

"You'll find the people who regularly reach out beyond their normal domain to work with other people, and -- generally -- those are the ones who should be identified as high-potentials," he says.

Of course, the idea of using social networks for work is still new to many people, Lundy admits. "You get a lot of pushback -- employees are told, 'You have to use this,' and they say, 'But I don't want to use it,' even though the technology itself works fine," he says.

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At Marsh, most of the company's business leaders expressed enthusiasm when the idea of MU was first floated, says Ledford. The company had been forced to cut much of its classroom-based offerings in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and recent engagement-survey results showed that employees missed the chance to collaborate.

"We had this competitive advantage of a freakishly collaborative culture, employee loyalty and experience -- all the pieces were there, but there were no spokes to connect these hubs," says Brooks.

Some HR practitioners, in fact, were wary of the new approach.

"There was a fair share of people in HR who were ready to say, 'This is scary, this is dangerous and fraught with challenges,' " says Ledford. "But I was like, 'If you're not willing to take risks, then why are we here? To just do the same things over and over again?' That was not the sort of HR [organization] I wanted to lead."

Some in HR expressed concern that MU could bring controversy to the company via inappropriate or incorrect postings by employees. Ledford, however, regards such incidents as potential opportunities.

"The point is, if someone says something incorrect, then we can have a conversation out loud about it and adjust that," says Ledford, adding that the firm's existing social-media policy prohibiting offensive or deliberately misleading material applies to MU as well. "If they're posting it in our forums, then they're probably saying it to colleagues in their office or even to clients. This lets us uncover false rumors and set the record straight."

Romeo encountered similar concerns when D Street was first proposed.

"Our legal and risk departments said, 'Are you kidding me?' " she says. "We're in a highly regulated industry and we take extreme measures to protect our clients' confidentiality, so the thought of an open social network was rather frightening."

These concerns were mitigated by assigning an employee to serve as a moderator for all postings, says Romeo. This person reviews all content before it's posted to screen for any confidentiality issues or inappropriate material.

"The bottom line is, D Street has been up and running for five years and less than 1 percent of the content has been flagged," she says. "Having this process in place gives our legal and risk teams confidence that this is a legally defensible process."

Seeking Out Conversations

At Marsh, MU was rolled out "one classroom at a time" rather than overwhelming employees with a lot of new tools, says Ledford. In the beginning, HR did a fair amount of outreach to let employees know about MU, she adds.

"If you build it, they won't necessarily come -- there has to be a campaign," she says.

As it was introduced to more of the company, however, enthusiasm picked up, says Brooks, and employees began asking for more features and capabilities: " 'When can we form groups?'  'When will we have a mobile version?' "

MU has helped create a new level of transparency at Marsh, says Ledford. Last November, at the company's global executive meeting -- typically a closed-door affair -- the CEO paused in the middle of a presentation and asked all the executives in attendance to whip out their mobile phones and "Spark" (a messaging feature on MU) about something they'd just learned during the meeting. Then, the CEO asked employees from around the globe to submit questions for him via Spark. He received 105 questions from employees that day.

"He was thrilled," says Ledford. "Typically, if he gets two or three questions from employees, that's a lot."

The transparency made possible by enterprise social networks can change organizations in unexpected ways, says Conner. At one of her clients, the company posted the "nitty gritty" results of a recent employee-engagement survey to its social network, rather than just a broad summary, as is standard practice, she says. After posting the results, HR found that online groups of employees formed almost immediately to help tackle some of the problems uncovered by the survey.

In particular, one of the survey's findings revealed frustration among employees who felt "talked down to" by the company's employee-communications department. One of the employee groups cited examples where this was happening and offered alternative language the department could use that would have less of a bite. The communications department took note and changed its language accordingly, says Conner.

No social-media strategy will ever realize its full potential without HR's involvement, she says. And yet, HR leaders may find themselves not being invited to participate in conversations about social-media strategy because other executives are scared they will be the nay-sayers -- that they'll be pointing out all the reasons why something can't be done, says Conner.

"If you're not hearing these conversations, then go out and look for them, and when you find them, be there as a participant to help people do great work, not to go over all the reasons why this is dangerous," she says. "None of us went into HR to do tactical stuff; we went into it to help people do better work. This is our opportunity to fulfill those aspirations."


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