Social HR: Policies for a Social Era

By Perry Timms, thought leader, HR Practitioner, Social Business Entrepreneur, Advisor to the CIPD on Social Media & Engagement and Visiting Fellow – Sheffield Hallam University

When was the last time you felt good about an HR Policy?

Social Media circa 2004 was largely a mystery.  Forward to 2007/08 and suddenly IT teams were being asked to block access to YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.  EXCEPT for press teams and PR/Marketing types.  The advent of the iPhone changed all that and people at work didn’t need the technology that work was providing anymore to get on to the internet and social networking sites, they could use their smart phone.

So instead of simply banning access to this time-wasting technology, policies were crafted informing staff that employer-related posts were not to be entertained and that there was effectively a ban on sharing work-related information on their own personal social networking sites and platforms.  We had some high profile dismissals, cases of inappropriate and harassing behaviour and the likes.  Paris Brown of the Kent Police Commissioners fame being one such case.

Policies were seen as the catch-all for organisations to be able to dismiss, litigate or whatever against people who posted inappropriately.

It was almost seen to be cutting edge to have a social media policy.  Especially when added to with a Bring Your Own Device policy.

What was missing here was something pretty fundamental in a modern world: responsible adult behaviour and the compliant majority.  A social media policy was built for a catching a potential not silent micro-minority.

This also fails to recognise that people may even post positive things about the place they work so their friends could see they had a good boss, a terrific HR team and had a very decent experience at work.  See the recent tweet about tube rage which then resulted in the rager turning up for an interview with the person he was so rude to.  That went MASSIVELY viral.  That could equally happen to something positive and different about a workplace that does great things.

It is therefore my assertion that where people are overly concerned about a social media policy is because there’s something not quite right about the culture and that’s got nothing to do with social media in itself.  So banning the channel only masks the fractured culture.

Whether there’s blemishes in the company culture or not, my thinking here is, that in drafting a policy around use of social media let’s see something different.  In fact in all policies but particularly around social media.

Why not use scenarios or advocate activity you would LIKE TO SEE occurring on people’s social networks. For example:

“If you love our brand, we’d love you to share that with your followers and friends on social networks.  Only if you genuinely feel the pride, excitement and appreciation will it be sincere so please be wise about the facts, timing and impact you’d like to have by showing you and us in a positive light.

If you and your colleagues have achieved something marvellous, why not share that with your followers and the world?  It’s not about public accolades or medals.  It is about showing people who have helped you succeed know you care about their part in that and the world should hear about how good they all are.

We believe we’ll save money on expensive hiring processes if people are good advocates for us and help us attract the right kinds of people to apply for our jobs.  We’d love you to help us do that with posts about what it’s like to work here, how things are done and the benefits you get from your job with us.

If you don’t really feel like you want to celebrate your working with us, we’d understand if you’d rather keep it to personal conversations and not post online.”

…and then simply say,

“If you’re angry about the way you’re treated at work, it is better dealt with via an internal-only conversation.  There’s not much to gain for you or the company by going public with a rant. Only if we can’t reach some form of understanding will you find yourself frustrated enough to use social networks to share your issue.  Even then though, we’d rather you didn’t.”

I reckon the same could apply to a lot more HR policies.  They should be written in “towards” and positive language to encourage productive behaviours.  They should contain a small but powerful warning: if you want to be destructive and break our beliefs system then you do it and we will not allow you to get away with malevolent acts without recourse.  YET we recognise the majority of people won’t do this.

I’m reminded of FAVI – the engineering company featured in Frederic Laloux’s  Reinventing Organisations book.  There was a story of the store room being locked and a form filling process and delay in getting access to tools and materials.  So the CEO took the approach to leave it unlocked and the form filling was only to make sure stock was replenished.  People helped themselves.  Then someone stole a drill.  Instead of reverting to bureaucracy controls, the CEO simply put a flipchart easel by the door to the stores and a note that said

“By stealing you’re letting us all down but we won’t change the trust we have in everyone else.  If you needed a drill, you could just ask and we’d lend you the drill.”

The drill was returned soon and no more thefts recorded.

So I think it should be with social media and posts.

Rather than a preventative, child-locked, mistrusting frame to be enforced at the first opportunity, how about a policy that guides positive, useful and impactful actions?  That might just work.

HR that surprises people not frustrates them.

Why go social inside the firewall?

By Perry Timms, thought leader, HR Practitioner, Social Business Entrepreneur, Advisor to the CIPD on Social Media & Engagement and Visiting Fellow – Sheffield Hallam University

To decode this headline please read:

Social =  collaborative technologies

Firewall = the digital barrier to stop your company technology from cyber attacks

Social Media.  If you’ve read one story, blog or feature you’ve read a hundred before.  Yet we ARE still learning about the impact social and collaborative technologies are having on how we work and live.

So we still need to talk about it.  And there is something about the use of social media INSIDE an organisation that is still yet to take hold.  Some people have managed it brilliantly.  Many haven’t even attempted it yet.  Others have and it has failed – fuelling the thought that social is a fad and won’t catch on in the “real world”.  That failure isn’t a technology fail though – it’s a cultural, attitudinal and even skills failure.

Here’s WHY you might want to socialise internally.  Using a technology platform or more of course.  Yet it isn’t all about the technology.  It is about culture, attitudes and skills.

Reason 1.  We’re made to be social.

From our very first moments outside the womb, we develop the need for social bonding.  Why?  Because that’s how we – as a helpless newborn being – get food, water, warmth, shelter.  Work on production lines, via in-boxes, on call centres or serving customers from counters is only mildly social.  If at all social.  Much science of productivity is questioning this format for work.  800 repetitions of the same thing is pretty dull and machine like.  Yet we ask people to do it and be good at it.  All. Day. Long.  We could look more into the variables and what that does to our energy levels and cognition.

What IS proven is that oxytocin (the social bonding chemical in our brains) is a powerful driver of our behaviours.  We have a need for this social bond and that’s why we go stir crazy either stuck in an office, lab or shop floor on our own OR with people we’re not bonding with.  Indeed the “loneliness” chemical – interleukin – has been linked to heart failure and premature mortality.  Social literally keeps us alive longer.  It certainly energises us in the way dopamine – the laughter or happy chemical – also does.

Reason 2. Work needs collective intelligence.

There’s no such thing as an expert any more.  Why?  As soon as you think you know something, the fast paced modern world shakes it all about and things are different.

We are often now facing complex or even chaotic sets of problems to which there’s been no precedent set or answers made.  So we need ingenuity, ideas, insight and execution.  In the IT world, in order to get software right as first time as possible people code in pairs.  Not alone and then test, iterate as a duo.  Then release for fail-fast testing to then refine.  That’s why most software now works better than it used to and we don’t get “the computer system is down” on the end of the line.  Generally, it’s not a case of “too many cooks” it literally is a case of smells like team spirit.

There is absolutely no such thing as best practice.  There is though, wisdom of the crowd and the sharing of breakthrough solutions or fixes/work-arounds.  This can be prolifically and rapidly deployed using internal social networks where the popularity of helpful posts allows for detection and attention to be given rather than another email with the red exclamation of importance sat in an already cluttered inbox.

Reason 3.  Social is a leveller.

The chain of command, the decision making escalation and the cross-divisional politics are largely negated and navigated through using enterprise social networks.  Most people are on a level – there’s no hierarchy.  Whoever posts has the right to post whatever their position in the company.  If it’s right, it’ll gain attention and that person will have leadership, authority and credibility.  Meritocracy not autocracy.

One of the biggest delays and causes of unproductive work is the hierarchy and bottle-necks on decisions and sign off from busy executives.  Because they don’t have enough thinking time, they ask you to come up with a business case and cost it, do the ROI and the likes.  Once that’s done, they will sign it off as it at least looks like you’re considering a range of factors.

Yet on social, the system really will help you think it through and distribute the effort, input and decision thus avoiding bottleneck executive schedules.  Some companies insist now that executive sign-off is a thing of the past and ANYONE in the company can veto or endorse an idea.  It’s made for an agile and inclusive way that means people are behind new initiatives not puzzled by their appearance.  Alignment and fit come naturally and politics vaporise with this new level of understanding.

In summary

So 3 key reasons; individual energy; collective wisdom and smoother paths to progress means social media adoption internally isn’t a recipe for chaos.  It’s tapping a state of flow we’ve made less of than we should.  We have processes but they’re like playing a symphony in 50 short bursts not one continuous score.

Orchestras are made of virtuosos but also harmonic sections all working together to create the wall of sound.  Internal social networks are like inviting your people to join a chorus instead of sitting humming into their own personalised playlists.

Melodic work?  Sure.  The rhythm of collaborative productivity.  The sound of socialised success.

How do you get collaboration, reflection and feedback in a learning network

Recently I was facilitating an on-line learning network and I was curious to find out how learners responded to this space, i.e. a place to collaboratively learn. On-line learning is where the learner can complete, at their own pace, a series of steps. But it is often perceived as an isolating experience However, not all learning can follow a defined process. There are many topics where the diversity of thinking will create agile and highly relevant answers to a conversation thread. An exciting move forward is the use of social networks in the learning process, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These environments have created a culture of unconditional sharing. Through this voluntary collaboration, the breath of knowledge is multiplied exponentially (2010, Clay Shirkey).

The question is how do you create a focused learning conversation in a learning network that can benefit a smaller group?

Perhaps we need to take a closer look at what we are seeking to achieve.  A leading thinker in experiential learning, David Kolb, sets out four stages in his cycle of learning that help to explain human learning behaviour and how we might get a better understanding of supporting others to learn (1984, D Kolb). The four stages are:

  1. Concrete Experience
  2. Reflective Observation
  3. Abstract Conceptualisation
  4. Active Experimentation

It is worth observing that ‘Reflective Observation’ builds on the first ‘Concrete Experience’ that then allows us to build new intelligence in stages 3 and 4. Equally, we can apply this to an on-line network where an individual describes their new experience in a discussion thread and then invites comment. It is arguably much easier to add observations and comments when the new experience is described clearly. So my next question needs to be, where do you start your learning process in this model for learning? For example, when faced with the assembling a new gadget do you prefer to read the instructions thoroughly first (Step 1.) or just plug it in and play with the buttons intuitively (Step 4.)?

Knowing where you start this learning cycle will inform you on how you will choose to approach a new process and, in turn, observe other’s learning. In participating in an on-line course there are likely to be many invitations to try new tools and techniques so there will be plenty of opportunities to talk about your experiences and to notice everyone’s learning preferences. Consider inviting feedback from the group on your learning preferences as well as how you are encouraging learning in others in the group. This will give you important information when do your assignments.

Feed back can make or break a learning thread. So here are a few pointers for both those asking for feedback and those giving feedback.

  1. Good feedback is information-specific, content-focused, and based on observations. It is helpful, in this case, that we are informed by the assignment descriptions set out in the E-learning Studios Learning Management System (LMS).
  2. Do pay attention to the feedback the learner has asked for before you broaden your observations to areas they might have missed.
  3. Consider asking open questions that invite new reflections such as: What is it about this on-line tool that will appeal to your primary audience?
  4. Apply positive feedback to any specific strong points in an assignment. It will add valuable information on ideas that have worked well.
  5. If something does not work well for you give solid evidence explaining why.
  6. Consider that your feedback may well be relevant to you. It is often said that we notice, in others, what we need to learn ourselves.
  7. Ensure you are clear when making your point. Check through the meaning of your feedback before you send it off as you might not have explained the real point!
  8. Remember your feedback may well be a personal opinion and bring important diversity to the conversation thread. Illustrate, where possible with examples, to show them what you mean as you may be offering something completely new to their world of understanding.
  9. Follow up when they respond to you.

In summary, if I am going to create a learning network I need to share my experiences, however small and respond to any feedback I receive. To do this productively I need to understand my own learning preferences that will, in turn, indicate my bias when giving feedback to others. That way I can ensure that the dialogue is rich with the diversity of the group and reveal that unexpected gem of new learning and collaboration.

What do you think? What is your experience of creating collaborative thinking on-line?


2010, Shirkey C., Cognitive Surplus, Pub. Allen Lane

1984 Kolb, David A., Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Pub. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J.