Many conversations in 2015 point to my aspirations for 2016. I can’t confidently predict this will happen, but my wish is that people will be more openly self-critical about their roles in their businesses. The past few years have seen a willingness to recognise the value of ‘social media’ and ‘collaborative working’, characterised most recently by phrases like ‘working-out-loud’. Frequent conversations about these concepts with CEOs and internal comms, HR and marketing managers demonstrate that, on the one hand, we’re all receptive to change and are keeping up with the latest thinking – but, on the other, that it’s possibly just talk.
Enterprise/Employee Social Networks (ESNs) may well gain even more traction in 2016, but will they truly deliver if people stick to the pre-‘social’ ways of prescribed working practices – defined by job titles and reporting structures? Genuine collaborative working can only happen where individuals are encouraged to develop and use their skills, unconstrained by labels and set tasks. Yet the ‘functionaries’, people who define themselves by their function not their skills, tend to get in the way. ‘Social’ platforms challenge the meaning of the role of many specialized functions, most especially management itself. So my wishful predictions for 2016 are that managers will ask themselves:
1. Is internal communications manager a function or a skill set?
‘Social’ originated outside the business, not inside. So it’s not surprising that the marketing department is the one that has most clearly realised, even if reluctantly, that ‘marketing’ is no longer their own exclusive domain, that every single employee, as a brand ambassador, can contribute to marketing, and that if the skills that are taken for granted within the marketing department are not transferred to all employees then the business won’t compete effectively – whether for customers or for skilled staff.
Will internal communicators similarly recognise that all staff need internal communication skills in 2016? ‘Crowd-sourcing’ and ‘user-generated content’ are well used externally. The authenticity and veracity of the crowd-sourced message makes compelling reading – so internal communication managers will be nurturing it, not censoring it. In 2016 an IC manager will be increasingly defined by not the function but the skills – and those skills will be channelled into realising strategic outcomes and will, to some extent be made transferable to all employees. By working alongside marketing and HR, that means seeing communications in the round, not just confined to all employees but to part-timers, contractors, partners, supply chain and distributors as well. Perhaps in 2016 we’ll be seeing more communication strategists, to distinguish this new skill set from traditional internal comms.
2. Is community management a function or a skill set?
When new technology is introduced, it’s tempting to assume that new roles will be needed. Remember the days when websites required a new silo – the web team – to post and manage the content? Sophisticated Content Management Systems have done away with the role of web editor. But it’s all happening again with the introduction of ESNs. Instead of the internal communications team seeing this as an opportunity to add new skills to their repertoire, they stand aside for the ‘intranet manager’ or ‘community manager’ to take over. Being socially adept and empathetic, editorially aware and well organised are the basic skills of community management. Are these so far away from the skills required for internal communications?
Originating with external-facing communities, the role of community management was, and for many still is, an essential function that ensures the vibrancy and value of the community. Yet the role is changing, if not disappearing. In 2015, the use of online communities, external and internal is increasing yet, as monitored by LinkedIn, more people left community management than entered it. With more sophisticated and intuitive community platforms, the required skills sets are more about management of human interactions than technical platforms. These are skills that already exist within the business – especially in internal communications. So my wishful prediction for 2016 is that IC managers will acquire the skills of community managers.
3. Will cross-functional teams be the new norm?
Introducing ‘social’ into the business should mean involving all employees in the areas of customer loyalty, employee engagement, knowledge-sharing, collaboration, emotional support, advocacy and innovation. If that’s not the aspiration then why go ‘social’? But if it is, then why expect the pre-‘social’ siloed working to deliver on the aspiration? Cross-functional team working is a natural outcome of introducing an ESN, so the business had better be prepared to embrace it!
The enemy of cross-functional teams is the traditional company hierarchy; and the people who have most invested in that hierarchy are managers, perhaps most especially the middle managers. This may include the IC managers and community managers! So the third hopeful prediction for 2016 is that IC managers reinvent themselves as facilitators and advisors and acknowledge that the ‘manager’ can get in the way of doing the right thing.
Lawrence Clarke co-founded the social strategy agency Shilbrook Associates.
1. Riding the Microsoft behemoth
The rise and rise of Microsoft’s O365 – with its irresistible appeal to CIOs as an ultra-trustworthy one-stop shop – is having a strangely distorting effect on the world of enterprise social. It’s certainly helping to spread the message that every business should use collaborative and social tools. But it’s also hugely confusing, which makes it hard for any individual business to know what are the right tools for its own collaboration and social purposes. Before O365, you just had Sharepoint, and the messaging about enterprise social around that – with its myriad features and complicated set-up and management – was confusing enough . Today, as well as your Sharepoint team sites and news feeds, you have to consider how to use the collaboration groups and other features within O365 like Skype. Then there’s Yammer. Everyone knows it, some love it, others loathe it; but Microsoft appear to have stopped developing it or trying to fix the many issues around integrating it in the rest of the O365 suite. So it’s been left hanging in limbo, a legacy tool that’s only half-fit for purpose – yet, because it’s bundled in with the rest of the O365 package, it is skewing the market, and making it hard to argue for investment in other, more specialised enterprise social platforms.
And this leads to a crucial question for communicators and others who are seeking to introduce social habits into the business. Who makes the decisions about what tools to invest in? The Microsoft juggernaut means that the professional communicators – the ones who are charged with making the investment work – have increasingly less say in whether they have the right tools for the job. They’re handed the O365 mishmash, and told to get on with it. They are faced with the $64,000 question – how to configure the beast into something usable, flexible and able to grow organically as the social habit spreads across the business. And this monster distracts them from the equally important – and equally challenging – matters of selling in the concept of social to senior and middle managers, and teaching them how to get the most out of the new methods of working. Learning to find your way through this maze is the one of the biggest issues for communicators in 2016.
2. Making the business case
It all seemed so much easier in the good old days of 2010, when social was the buzzword for evangelists and disrupters, something they could introduce under the radar with a group of like-minded early adopters. They set up a free cloud-based service like Yammer, started posting, and word would spread around the business like wildfire. When, eventually, IT, HR or senior management got to hear of it, they were bombarded by good-news stories that made the thing impossible to switch off. So instead they joined up, bestowed honour and glory on the initiators, gave the tool their blessing, and integrated it into their wider enterprise systems.
Or so the story went. In practice, a lot of businesses hit an adoption gap, and never got beyond those initial enthusiasts. Others got wider adoption, but never found truly convincing use cases; they set up hundreds of collaborative groups but found they could never prove what sort of collaboration actually went on inside them. Poor analytics didn’t help. But most of all, the social tools always seemed at cross-purposes to the main activities of the business, simply because no-one with authority had looked at what these social tools were actually for. They weren’t aligned to any wider business strategies, and there were no sponsors urging adoption at senior level or setting targets that related to real business goals.
Today, more and more businesses understand that this approach is a dead-end, and are trying to understand what benefits social can bring before they invest time and money in introducing any kind of tools. This is a great opportunity for communicators to put a marker down for their own ability to contribute to the strategic direction of the business. But it’s also a huge challenge, and many communicators need all the help they can get in assembling a business case that will get a thumbs-up in the boardroom.
Becoming a social business
Virtually every business, large or small, is well set on the social media band-waggon, and some can point to measurable commercial results to set alongside their improved brand perception, customer service and advocacy activity. Many businesses, too, are realising the insight and retention benefits of engaging individually with their customers and partners, and helping customers or partners to engage with one another, on their own, branded community spaces. Many other businesses are discovering real benefits of using social and collaborative working patterns inside the business. One way and another, social is working its way to the heart of everything we do.
The next step – which came into focus last year and looks like being mega in 2016 – is to create a social strategy that runs across the business, inside and out, a strategy that integrates the ways the marketing and customer service teams talk to customers with the ways that internal teams collaborate on creating the right offerings for those customers. The most innovative businesses are using customer-led ideation to drive innovation – and are sharing the internal stories (warts and all) with their key external audiences. They are breaking down the barriers between inside and outside the business, and turning themselves into agile, transparent organisations with their fingers right on the pulse of their markets, and ideally placed to sustain themselves through the challenges they will soon be facing.
These are the real social businesses of 2016 – and to join them your business will need a strong vision shared across the board, and driven by the comms and marketing teams.
Peter Furtado co-founded the social strategy agency Shilbrook Associates.
I’m not sure there is one big thing that will hit in 2016, rather just the ongoing (relatively) gradual change we’ve been seeing over the last few years. I certainly think the internal social and collaborative technology and user experience from all vendors is getting better, and we should see all sides inside businesses (IC, OD, HR, IT..) increasingly getting their heads around the need to work better together to achieve success. The pure ‘launch and learn’ days, coming out of one single department, are surely behind us, much as an element of continual learning and improvement will always be required.
As the relevant parties inside the organisation get more involved I think we will see them needing to understand the difference (sometimes subtle, sometimes fundamental) between the many different tools out there, and realising that picking the right platforms requires a certain amount of work up front. It will be interesting to see how established Gartner leaders like Jive, IBM and MSFT evolve this year, how Facebook at Work fits into this increasingly mature marketplace, and the extent to which other relative newcomers like Slack maintain course or evolve. And of course who knows what other new toys might arrive.
If there was one specific thing to watch I guess it might be the impact that Facebook at Work will have on accelerating, or not, the overall adoption of the new workplace behaviours associated with these tools. The high profile RBS story will be one I’m sure we will all follow with interest. There seems to be an assumption that the wide rollout of such ubiquitous technology as Facebook across the organisation will lead to immediate success, minimising the need for any community management, training, use case development etc. That people will just connect and share and stop using email. Experience suggests that irrespective of the technology, many other strategic, leadership and cultural factors will be required to achieve their desired outcomes. And alarm bells always ring for me when people talk of ‘reducing email’ as one of their key goals. We shall see what happens.
Nick Crawford is Co-founder and Director of Betterworking