Social-experiment-media

27 August 2015 | Tim Phillips

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Tim Phillips

Blog Author | Freelance writer


Many years ago I was interviewing a management consultant about how he communicated the need for change internally in organisations. How, I asked him, did he explain the benefit of cooperating to employees? “I say: ‘Your reward is that you get to keep your job’,” he said.

Many years ago I was interviewing a management consultant about how he communicated the need for change internally in organisations. How, I asked him, did he explain the benefit of cooperating to employees? “I say: ‘Your reward is that you get to keep your job’,” he said.

His 21st century successors are more likely to use social media to discuss change. It’s a collaborative conversation, a million miles from the old joke about the discipline of sunshine management (“Listen, sunshine, this is what you’re going to do...”).

Social media is credited with giving employees a louder voice in decision-making, helping them to communicate better with managers, and cutting staff turnover. But, as a paper (‘Does social media enhance constructive employee voice all of the time or just some of the time?’) by Graeme Martin of the University of Dundee and Emma Parry and Paul Flowers of the Cranfield School of Management, soon to be published in The Human Resource Management Journal, points out: so far there has not been much rigorous evidence to back this up. 

There’s another reason for us to be interested in this paper: it’s based on a detailed case study of three business units in a wholesale telecoms provider. 

The authors don’t name the provider in question, though we are told that it is a UK-headquartered multinational corporation, one that provides communications and IT services to consumers and businesses in 170 countries, and which began as a British publicly owned utility but was privatised in the mid-1980s. 

So your guess is as good as, and probably the same as, mine.

Kudos to the mystery wholesale provider (MWP) for using the technology it sells to try to eliminate bureaucracy, and make it faster and more agile. Opening the kimono to researchers was brave too, because it’s a warts-and-all investigation. 

Undeniably this MWP has embraced social media with gusto. Its uses internal blogs, podcasts, internal versions of Wikipedia and Facebook, an online news service, video and even a “social media talent academy” with Second Life-like avatars. 

There are positive impacts: “We can have a sharing of ideas,” says a senior leader in an interview with the authors. The technology helps to “find ways to chat over the water fountain or cooler, and not (need to) see people every day,” says another manager. But not everyone at the MWP is impressed. 

One interviewee described the blogs as “a management propaganda tool… it is sunny and upbeat and it never rains”. In a few cases, managers complained that anonymous employees were using social media for “bitching and moaning”.

Some managers told the authors that they fret about this new channel of feedback. 

One says: “We generally try and close things down… what we will try and do is answer in such a way that no one else feels they should comment.”

 Another admitted to screening out critical remarks so as not to embarrass senior management.

Interestingly, the business units that adopted the technology the most were not the most open - the critical comments about control came from the business unit that the authors measured as having the highest social media engagement. Non-tech factors, not least the external economic pressure on the business units, seemed to matter as much as comfort with social media apps.

This company’s experiment in using the technology it sells shows that transparency has a price that not everyone wants to pay. As the authors conclude, in a line that’s unlikely to make it into the MWP’s sales literature: “While social media may be introduced within an organisation with the intention of increasing employee voice, this will not necessarily be the actual outcome.”