We all know that big data and digital technologies are changing the way in which companies understand and interact with their customers. The sheer volume of information internal customer databases, social media profiles, purchasing information and mobile phone data, means that businesses from every sector are scrambling to build better profiles of their most important customers and tempt them into repeat business.

Comparatively little attention has been given, by contrast, to the impact of social tools in-house, or whether businesses are using big data to understand and interact with their employees. Yet a study on the social economy in 2012 by McKinsey suggests that there are real benefits to be gained if employers are able to use social tools for continuous business improvement.

According to the report, twice as much potential lies in using social tools to enhance communication and share knowledge internally as there is to gather insights for product development, marketing and customer service. Social technologies have the potential to raise productivity by 20 to 25% if used cleverly, by increasing the proportion of value added time spent on everyday tasks. Reading and answering email, searching and gathering information and communicating and collaborating internally can all be made more value-added if social technologies are added to the mix. Equally importantly, these technologies allow employers to use publicly available information to build a better picture of what employees think about any given topic than traditional surveys.

Google provides an excellent case study of a company that already does this well. It has a ‘People Analytics’ department that is considered an integral part of the company structure, whose remit is for “all people decisions at Google to be based on data and analytics”. The insights gained from its statistical testing have directly impacted decision-making on recruitment, maternity leave management and organisational size.

So if social technologies offer such obvious opportunities to build smarter workforces, why aren’t we using them more? Part of the reason is that many businesses are still not au fait with using multiple social platforms for internal communication – email is still the channel of choice for many. Another challenge is that using analytics for HR is an area that requires up-skilling. It may also have negative associations if there is a perceived over-reliance on big data, given the importance of inter-personal skills and people management. But new streams of data should improve the macro-level picture of a workforce and, once businesses have the right resources in place, input into better decision-making.