Social media at work. Really?

The Ostrich Strategy Photo credit:

The Ostrich Strategy
Photo credit:

Imagine you’re a salesperson at a big global firm and you’re paid well into 6 figures. You’re at your office, about to call a client, and you want to research her first. Who’s she connected to? Where has she worked before? What’s she up to these days?

Now imagine your firm won’t let you do any of that research on their office computer (but it’s okay <wink wink> to use your own phone to do it). And imagine your firm spends millions on training but not a nickel on how you can effectively use the most powerful client research tools on the planet.

That’s the state of social media at a lot of financial firms. Many firms block it. (You can’t even read content published by your own firm.) Most don’t train anyone. Most aren’t sure of what to do next. And most have their heads firmly planted in the sand, pretending everything’s okay.

This week, at a small event in London hosted by the Dachis Group, I got a chance to talk with a few other firms as to why that is and what we can do about it.

Risk, Responsibility, and Return

While some firms use social media for marketing, maybe even customer support, that only makes the lack of access and training more striking. For many firms the use of social media is limited to a few specialists sprinkled throughout the firm.

Perhaps the main reason for the lack of progress (at least in banks, pharmaceuticals, and other regulated firms) is that there’s too much risk. The rules are complicated (with plenty of gray areas) and so firms are confused about what they can do and say. Well-publicized missteps and scandals make them even more wary.

There’s also ambiguity as to who’s responsible for helping business lines use the tools effectively. Instead, each team – marketing, recruiting, support – each figures out everything from scratch. For most businesses, that can be overwhelming and expensive.

Then there’s the money. What’s it worth? Without some clear benefits, it seems like a lot of real risk for uncertain rewards. And with no one assigned to figure it out firm-wide, it’s no wonder there’s little progress.

An approach we could all agree on

In discussing this with other firms, it seemed a good approach might be to sell different things to different audiences. To compliance, the argument is that “willful ignorance is not an option”. That they’d better fund an effort to sort out monitoring and training at a minimum or they’ll be at risk given people are increasingly using their own devices anyway.

For businesses, particularly sales, their best use of social media might not require posting at all. They can have the best rolodex they ever had by simply having read-only access to social media and some training on how to use it for client research.

We agreed that fear and greed can be a powerful combination.

Stepping back and moving forward

The discussion that night was strangely reassuring. Despite the lack of significant progress in using social media in financial firms, the absence of evangelism and the abundance of solid next steps made me feel there’s hope after all. After a lot of hype and little real results, most advocates of social media I spoke with agreed on some very sound, practical approaches:

  • They stopped talking about “social” at their firm and focused instead on the problems they were trying to solve.
  • They formed or sought to form a small center of excellence to sort out the tools, rules, and processes to make it easier for individual business lines to take their first step
  • They started with small projects and with people in business lines who were already advocates.
  • They positioned their social media work as simply part of a broader portfolio of communications and engagement as opposed to a distinct, disjoint effort.

It’s taking much longer than I expected for firms to help their people use social media effectively at work. But I’m more convinced than ever that it’s “when” and not “if”.


About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
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6 Responses to Social media at work. Really?

  1. Kieran Kelly says:

    Hi John, great blog, thanks very much for attending our event on Thursday. I think it was a pretty fruitful discussion, we look forward to following up with the group and developing the conversation. Do share as you begin to make inroads at DB!


  2. Nick Purdy says:

    John, i’m with you on this. The social media aspect of business is taking far longer than I thought it woulld to work it’s way into what I suppose you could call the “mainstream”. It’s like when computers were introduced. You inevitably had those hold-outs who thought it would pass. Just like computers though, social media is here to stay and in my opinion, you can embrace it, or be left behind with that sales guy on the road looking for the world’s last payphone…

    Great article!

  3. moyramackie says:

    John this is great! You’re asking people to do things differently. It doesn’t matter if it’s social,or anything else. It’s different and not what those in senior positions are doing. You are asking senior people to be more open, to take a risk, to trust. You are at the cutting edge of change. In my experience it will always take longer and be more frustrating than you expected. Call John Kotter, ask him. He makes it seem easy 🙂 Otherwise SO glad that you are presenting a realistic view of what change takes!

  4. Social Media whether for personal use or business use requires some common sense in its use, after all you cannot easily remove things that get out there. But that being said Social Media is one way in which many people reach each other daily, and the cost of actually using it are low.

    Social media is one tool that has to date been helpful for small business more so than large ones, mostly due to their need to get to the customer, many small business lack the advertising and marketing resources of large ones. If large companies do not wake up and properly use social sites, they will find themselves losing out just as they would for failing to modernize their policies and procedures (whoops many forget and pay the boom and bust price for it). But large ones should realize that if they start using social media they will not be able to use there advertising self promotion material on these sites, the reality is in social media honesty and truth and a willingness to deal with problems wins the day, self promotion will always come back to bite you.

  5. Pingback: The best elearning reads of 2013 | eFront Blog

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