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When considering the HR Carnival theme of ‘beginnings’, social media may seem like a strange choice of topic. Even Generation Y’s grandparents have now embraced Twitter – definitive proof that the concept isn’t exactly in its infancy. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that the concept of social media now feels like a maturing part of the fabric of everyday work and home life. Perhaps that’s because it’s the perfect platform to discuss..well, itself, in the form of ever increasing circles of commentary about what social media means for new models of HR, marketing, work… even our collective consciousness. (If you’re getting a sense of meta-irony from this already – a knowing discussion about the over-discussed – then you can blame social media for that too..!).

But, amidst that noise, who is brave enough to say that social media has reached full maturity? And who can be confident about what its lasting impact on work will be in ten or twenty years time? Certainly, the information spread that social media enables has accelerated many trends in HR over just the past 4 to 5 years and it can tell us a lot about some of the basic truths of how we seek to find meaning and self-expression through work. Our access to experts and the most original thinkers is greater than ever (think TED Studies or the Harvard Business Review) and the HR community is more tightly linked in order to share their learning.

One man that has proven prescient about this epoch-defining media is Marshall McLuhan and his mantra ‘the medium is the message’ arguably still presents our best attempt at getting a handle on what social media means for businesses and HR. It makes the idea of HR 2.0 immeasurably simpler too. For whatever the technical vagaries of each new platform that appears, there are common threads running through all of them; universal concepts of sharing, creativity, democracy, and a lack of censorship.

So far we’ve seen numerous social media platforms break into the mainstream from niche communities filled with early adopters – but now it’s time for the focus of HR to shift from the ‘how to’ to the ‘what if?’. We’ve moved past the adoptive stage where some HR professionals blazed a trail with recruitment via social media. This is where social media’s impact on work really begins…

The challenge right now is to be  truly inventive with our internal and external employer brands, to really listen to our people and make a real statement about what the organisation is really about. It’s no surprise that as more employees are given a voice via social media the ethos of many workplaces has moved as far away from the traditional vision of a grey 9-5 office as they have ever been. Ultimately, there is now a different, more expansive race going on in the war for talent – less about process and more about ideology, meaning and employer brand.

Leveraging the technology and not settling for ‘now’ as the future

Looking at the HR trends that have emerged, accelerated by discussion and promotion on social media, many hinge on new technologies but the central ideas are not necessarily new. Take gamification – at first glance it may appear to be a technological sea-change, but in fact it’s simply about the idea of having fun in the workplace and social media has played its part in demonstrating the value of that. As someone who actively promotes the concept of achieving a ‘Good Day at Work™’, it’s genuinely exciting to see concepts such as gamification emerge, organically, from this new HR landscape. Social media has helped businesses to start hearing the real wants and needs of today’s employees, in a way that employee surveys never could. If there’s also a brand advantage or a cost saving that social media can leverage, then fine, but this kind of bottom up impetus for change speaks for itself. We must do more to encourage it, and to get CEOs and senior managers online, accessible, visible and engaged in the conversation.

The fact that many social media platforms are now built into HR technologies is telling, not of the efficacy of those new platforms, but of the readiness of many organisations to integrate with employees’ wider lives. That could be twitter feeds integrated into intranet sites, LinkedIn profiles used as the basis for staff directories, or work socials organised on Facebook. It’s subtle, but it represents a wider idea of how employees interact with their organisations and vice versa: one which encourages more progressive concepts of employee wellbeing and fulfilment, and a flexible approach that integrates work with life and life with work.

So we in HR and related disciplines have an opportunity. We need to be brave, accepting this impetus and taking on board a ‘bigger’ definition of the workplace that social media has provided. And we need to be key players in moving it on again. Social media has undoubtedly provided the workers of the world with a voice, in doing so its biggest impact will be in redefining what we expect from work. HR’s big opportunity here is in not just responding to those demands, but co-creating a new vision of how we work alongside the people it serves.

 

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Matthew Davis

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