The risky business of social media

This is an article that appeared on Australian Flexible Learning Framework websites in August 2009 from their e-newsletter. It is based on an interview that I gave and thought I’d share it with you.

The risky business of social media

Social media tools – such as Facebook,Twitter,wikis and blogs – are increasingly powerful and valuable for communicating, collaborating, retaining and harvesting knowledge. 

However, despite the widespread use and popularity of social media, and its ability to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration in workplace training, privacy issues and fears of misuse continue to deter many organisations from adopting these tools.

Nick Hortovanyi, CEO of Toast Technology, says that the benefits of allowing staff to access social media in the workplace far outweigh the risks – and that resisting the adoption of social media will result in organisations losing their competitive advantage.

Comparing social media to a ‘steam roller’, Nick explains why it’s critical that organisations act quickly to get on board.

Why should organisations adopt social media?

An ageing workforce

A key factor driving social media adoption is our aging workforce: for example, 60% of utilities workers and half of the Australian public service are expected to retire in the next 10 years. A vast amount of valuable knowledge and experience will be lost when these workers retire – unless organisations act quickly to implement an effective system to retain, share and harvest their knowledge. As experienced workers leave an organisation, social media applications can facilitate flexible and effective training and retraining of remaining and new staff.

Attracting and retaining high quality staff

Within the vocational education and training system, training providers are already starting to adopt social media applications as tools for learners to share knowledge and collaborate, allowing them to undertake training in any location and at any time. This flexibility is something that younger generations, in particular, have become accustomed to and expect. If organisations don’t provide access to social media
infrastructure in the workplace, they risk losing high quality new applicants to replace experienced retiring employees.

Capability development

Social media applications can enable management to identify and address areas within a team that need strengthening. Social media can facilitate high-quality mentoring programs, enabling employees to access the most appropriate mentor to suit their requirements, regardless of location and distance. Similarly, organisations can engage specialists from remote locations on a just-in-time or ‘as needs’ basis, using instant messaging and videoconferencing tools (such as Skype).

Cost saving

There is a lot of great open source social media software – so getting started isn’t expensive. Social media can also save organisations time and money by enabling online – as opposed to face-to-face – training. This can reduce accommodation and travel costs, as well as the amount of time staff need to take away from their regular duties to attend training.

What are some of the risks of adopting social media, and how can they be overcome?

Not adopting it

The biggest risk for organisations is to ignore social media. If organisations take this approach, they risk losing relevancy as we move from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Social media tools will be a key part of this new economy – so if organisations can’t use these tools, they won’t be able to engage effectively in the knowledge economy.

Privacy and misuse

These are the most common concerns for organisations – however, they are relatively easy to overcome by implementing a social media policy.

An organisation’s social media policy should establish clear guidelines around privacy and acceptable use, as well as specifying how management should respond to infractions. An effective social media policy needs to be easy to understand and put into practice – so it should be ‘light’, clear, and concise. It’s imperative that this document is regularly reviewed and updated to keep pace with technological advancements. Check out IBM’s and Telstra’s social media policies online if you’re looking for some ideas on how to get started.

It’s also important to remember that firewalls can provide protection for organisations while they’re finding their feet and establishing what does and doesn’t work for them.


Not being able to use social media tools effectively is a significant risk. The only way for organisations to overcome this is to provide staff with access to the tools and time to experiment and develop their knowledge. Organisations need to ‘learn by doing’ – create a blog; create a wiki; experiment with tag clouds and learn how they work.

After you’ve tried out the tools and built up some experience, you will be well placed to become a social media ‘champion’ within your organisation, and start educating your managers and co-workers in a non-threatening way.

What’s your advice for a practitioner who wants to adopt social media, but their organisation won’t currently support this approach?

Start experimenting with the tools in your own time. Create your own personal blog (using TypePad or WordPress) or a Twitter account, develop your networks, and show your colleagues the responses and value that come from building connections using social media tools.



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