One of the most hotly debated issues around deploying social collaboration technologies inside an organisation is the question of whether to allow the creation of personal groups alongside business-focused groups. For many senior execs, this issue represents their greatest fear from allowing social collaboration into their organisation—that it is effectively encouraging the same time-wasting behaviour from staff during working hours as they spend in their own time on public social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. How can this possibly be good for business productivity and employee engagement?
One of the best arguments in favour of personal groups is that they offer a fantastic 'training ground' for employees, particularly in organisations where the culture is very traditional and non-collaborative, or where a significant proportion of staff are not familiar with using social technologies in personal context. In the same way as games like Minesweeper helped to 'train' users how to use the computer mouse in the early days of the PC, so personal groups offer a way for employees to become familiar with the new social collaboration platform in a less pressurised and confrontational way, helping them work out how to navigate around the site, how to post questions or comments, and the value of people profiles and connections, for example.
Personal groups can also help to start breaking down the organisational barriers associated with departments and roles by enabling everyone to go back to being just a person—not a trainee in the marketing department, or a senior manager in IT, for example. By encouraging staff to connect with others across the organisation who might have similar interests or hobbies, you start to open people’s eyes up to the possibilities that a more open, networked organisation can bring, and you are effectively laying the groundwork for replicating this same mindset in a business context. A great example of this came up in a case study that I am currently working on for a global office equipment manufacturing firm, where an acquaintance made through a personal interest group on the social intranet gave an employee the opportunity to get help on a business problem that had been an issue for some time, purely through making a friendly contact in the marketing department.
If you are trying to improve the collaborative culture across your organisation, trust is an essential part of this, including trusting your employees to behave in an appropriate way while they are at work. You can reinforce this through the creation of a set of usage guidelines for your social collaboration environment, but these inherently need to stem from your organisation’s existing HR policies around the business conduct expected from staff; they must be worded carefully to avoid being seen as a list of “Don’t”s. In practice, introducing new social collaboration tools in this way is not going to suddenly prompt your employees to start behaving inappropriately and taking advantage; I might argue that it will simply bring to light any existing poor behaviour, and surely it’s better to be aware of this so you can address it appropriately. But, in all seriousness, among all the organisations that I’ve spoken to about their social collaboration initiatives, not one has complained of an issue here—it is a false concern in my opinion. Guidelines are important—as much for the benefit of employees to clarify the boundaries of what is acceptable, as for the benefit of the organisation—but personal groups offer a way to demonstrate trust in your employees to know what is appropriate.
Do you allow personal groups in your organisation’s social collaboration platform? I’d love to hear whether you have found them to be beneficial to adoption, or—perhaps even more interestingly—not. You can leave a comment here, or contact me via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @aashenden.