How do you determine the possible business impact one employee could have by interacting with a single customer? How do you measure the cost to a company if they never know what innovative changes would reduce an exodus of long term customers? What if you were missing ways to reduce the sales cycle and improve margins? One of the things I find so fascinating about social media for business is that it addresses all of these questions and much more – often bringing with it answers in the form of ingenious solutions. Yet, what successes and wins go unrealized if your corporate culture is stymied by old-school beliefs that ignore the role social media plays in shaping today’s business?

I attended the Network Computing Architects (@NCAnet) annual conference last week. With prestigious speakers such as Nir Zuk, founder and CTO at Palo Alto Networks, and Sanjay Mirchandani, CIO of EMC Corporation, you can imagine the highly technical topics of the day. Presentations and panels energized the audience around timely and valuable topics such as cloud computing, IT security, data centers, network infrastructures, compliance, virtualization, WAN optimization and so forth. As an adjunct to the technical agenda was a CEO breakout session on a topic that cannot be ignored regardless of the business you’re in. That panel discussion was The Effect of Social Media on Business Culture in the Next Decade.

The panel was hosted by Mike Whitmore of Fresh Consulting (@mikewhitmore) and led by: Steve Gandara of Excellent Cultures (@XLNTCultures), Dr. Rob McKenna of Real Time Development Strategies (@DrRobMcKenna), and Barret Newberry who is an Executive Consultant, Business Strategist and Successful Entrepreneur (@barretn). These insightful panelists addressed two main fears that many CEOs have around social media: the impact on a company’s reputation if a disgruntled employee leaves and the shift it is creating to traditional business work models.

Social Media and Brand Reputation

As Steve put it, we all carry social viruses (emotional and day to day stresses and challenges, perceptions that impact our experiences, etc.). Let’s just say, disgruntlement happens. A decade ago, a disgruntled ex-employee would most likely have just shared some gripes with family and friends, who would eventually stop listening and the individual would move on. Today, when a disgruntled employee leaves a company, any complaints he or she feels like sharing can quickly be amplified and propagated using social media channels. The fear many CEOs share is that this widespread propagation of anti-brand sentiment plus the possible sharing of sensitive information will have a negative impact on the brand’s image.

Control is not an option. It’s true, as much as you may hate to hear it. You can’t control what others go out and say about you or your company and its products. Barret reminded us of “The Streisand Effect” or you may recall “22 Confessions of a Former Dell Sales Manager”. Those examples taught us that if you try to put a stop to social sharing, you can almost count on it completely backfiring on you! Mike mentioned that it’s really not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ something is going to happen in the social media space pertaining to your company. You can’t stop it, can’t control it; so where does this leave employers?

Strong culture is a win-win. Steve pointed out that what’s being shared and amplified is often an indicator of what is going on inside the hearts and minds of an individual and there is, as Mike commented, something about social media that calls us to contribute. Even though many execs are still struggling with the idea of allocating money toward professional uses of social media, Barret advised they should actually be open to putting resources toward social media training for employees. In my opinion, media training is now a critical component of the internal brand training that all employees need.

Every corporate team member needs to understand a) the company’s guiding values and principles and b) the professional benefits of following well-defined social media guidelines. Steve further emphasizes that employees need to believe in, engage, and own the philosophies of their companies. That means that leading by example from management to the executive team is perhaps more important than ever. The strong corporate culture that results from these actions is not only a great way to attract and retain top talent but also helps to reduce the likelihood that one disgruntled ex-employee could have a negative impact on a brand that other employees embrace.

Adopting a Social Network Work Model

Executives may have fears around allowing employees to participate in social networks. However, by creating simple boundaries, guidelines and examples, companies can get past that fear and not only use social media as a marketing platform but encourage employees to use it as a tool to achieve greater business productivity.

Don’t be the roadblock. If company policies and management styles create barriers that block the natural flow of work that incorporates social networking and collaboration, it will get in its own way. Rob provided a fantastic analogy that when your roof’s gutters are clean, water flows through them effortlessly. When you let leaves and debris pile up in the gutters, you end up with water trying to create new, ineffective paths around the obstacles, sometimes with damaging effects. Employees will find ways to use new technologies and social networks. If the paths to do that are filled with obstacles, the results will be less than optimal for employers.

Clear the path. Instead of trying to aggressively track or block employee use of social media, the company can use social networks and applications to promote learning, brand awareness, innovation and collaboration. Barret used the example of team collaboration through a document sharing application to allow ideas and work to be done creatively and quickly by teams. Others use private Facebook pages or video podcasts to ensure employees are aware of brand messaging. Ultimately, we have to embrace that work will get done in ways that we’ve never seen before. New doesn’t automatically mean bad.

Embracing the New Corporate Culture

An audience member at the session made an observation that the challenges now facing companies that are trying to adapt to new social networking possibilities are similar to the dilemmas faced when telecommuting first became an option.  Barret highlighted that technology advancements and the latest social norms being established by the youngest working generation bring extreme multi-tasking, constant distractions and communication skills that were learned via online channels. While traditional management approaches could be inclined to stop that behavior, realize that it may be both natural for some employees and also more productive than traditional business habits and expected work styles. The key is to have clear and helpful guidelines for your team members on when and how to use social networking professionally.

If you want to have a strong corporate culture and also be less vulnerable to the potential impact of a single disgruntled worker, you may want to take your queues from the qualities of social media itself. Here are my observations of the key beneficial traits exemplified within social media channels

Direct, Open, Transparent, Immediate, Collaborative, Vulnerable, Sharing, Fun, Humorous, Stimulating, Concise, Supportive, Challenging, Creative, Connected

Some of the words, like vulnerable, might scare you. However, these new ways of being are ultimately about relating to each other – even strangers – in more intimate, honest ways than we’re used to. And today, that’s good for business. Consider incorporating some of these qualities into your business vision, guiding values, and daily workflow and you may soon find your corporate culture stepping out of outdated modes of being and into exciting new possibilities.

Vicki Blair, M.A. (@VBlair)
Director of Account Management, Visible Technologies