Ignore at Your Peril: Social Media’s Impact on Shared Services

The concept of "viral" is quickly establishing itself as a new benchmark in the internet economy. "Gangnam style" went viral on YouTube and became a rage, cutting across national boundaries. The jobsite Glassdoor provides online space for "anonymous" salaries, company reviews, interview questions, and more, all posted by employees and job seekers – and, sometimes, the companies themselves. A search on Payscale yields salary data that matches your company and your company's positions, and includes 5 million current pay records. At the same time, Pinterest, riding on exponential growth over the past year, connects people all over the world based on "shared tastes and interests".

The sprawling reach of social media is challenging brick and mortar business models, and organizations will need to start reevaluating business rules as these are impacted and enabled by the online interface. Wikipedia quotes the total time spent on social media in the United States across personal computers and mobile devices as having increased by 37% from 2011-2012 (121 billion minutes in July 2012, compared to 88 billion minutes in July 2011). Moreover, functions like marketing, customer service (voice and non-voice), customer relationship development, human resources, and sales and finance (to a lesser degree) can no longer remain isolated from the explosion of real-time tweets. The same holds true for shared services centers (captive, outsourced and hybrid models) that cater to countless customer interactions interspersing the above-mentioned functions in the global market.

This context becomes relevant in evaluating whether shared services centers have a viable plan to handle the demands of social media. Could human resource functions be more transparent with existing and potential employees on salaries and perks? Are frontline managers equipped with skills to deal with nasty online posts on products and customer experience? Is there a business case for kicking off training programs on social media? How about re-skilling the present crop of business leaders, as well as grooming a new set of social media leaders?

To begin with, training programs in social media are the need of the hour considering the lightning-fast spread of online networks. The knowledge of online collaborative tools like weblogs, wikis, podcasts, blogs, Technocrati, TypePad, Twellow andGoogle Analytics may represent the procedural side of training. The behavioral side could comprise of sound written skills, creative design, presentation skills, emotional quotient, diversity, collaborative mindset, sharp business strategic acumen, and cultural sensitivity. Furthermore, the curriculum within shared services centers may be well served by articulating guidelines for target audience and processes. Jean Meister, in Forbes, mentions that "social media training is quickly becoming mandatory for an ever-growing range of companies" including the likes of Dell, Intel, Unisys, PepsiCo, Adidas and Sprint. She further adds that companies like Unisys, Sprint and HP are creating social media training programs "to show employees how using social media can be a valuable business tool which can increase their performance and productivity".

The focus now shifts to the human resource functions and how they could engage talent by partnering with social media. There are only a few shared services human resource teams who have started to leverage social media, and these efforts are largely confined to recruiting talent. However, to shift gears, social media must occupy a larger space within human resource policies pertaining to ethics, loyalty, media and communications. For example, Sprint has taken steps to establish specific social media guidelines, even if a thorough policy of employee conduct already exists. Next, online interactions and posts may be analyzed to grasp the pulse of employees and provide input to future plans. The Social Media Report (2012) published by Nielsen, states that 51% of people in age group of 25-34 use social networking in the office, more than any other age group. Human resource partners need to be made aware that details on salary and perks are easily accessible to existing and potential employees. Also, an internal debate on whether it’s better to adopt existing social media networks or build stand-alone online communities of users may offer some clarity on how to embrace social media. To borrow another reference from Forbes, Gloria Burke, Director of Knowledge & Collaboration at Unisys, supports "social media training to create a team of advocates who are equipped to represent their employer online." An example of how this can go wrong is a flashback to one of my earlier organizations, where the HR manager was on his feet to negate the fallout of a Facebook post by an employee highlighting the high-handedness of his manager.

Hands-on-experience of social media, by managers and leaders, is likely to be beneficial when negotiating existing or potential outsourcing contracts.Mike Wooden, Senior Vice President, Market Development, Business Process Solutions, ACS, states in Outsourcing Center that "outsourcing buyers are asking their suppliers for social media solutions to help them out, specifically in customer care". Furthermore, the adoption of social media will enable an alternative listening channel to the voice of customer, minimize potential loopholes in risks and controls, and calm edgy supplier relationships. Paul Cole, SVP, Customer Operations Management, Capgemini, mentions that it is "critical for companies to monitor and engage with social media, identifying individual influencers and then engaging with them to deliver the most appropriate customer treatment and experience".

The complexity builds as the spotlight turns on leadership. Most business leaders have online profiles, on LinkedIn and Facebook. These are largely utilized for personal issues, like birthdays, travel posts, hobbies etc., and rarely harnessed for business communication. The traditional role of business leaders has been to release carefully worded annual reports and to manage the expectations of shareholders, customers and employees. However, the growth of social media demands a new way of leading and raises the bar on being labeled effective leader. Ann Charles, CEO, Brandfog reveals that "81% of respondents said that CEOs who engage in social media are better equipped to lead than their peers, and 82% were more likely to trust a company whose CEO is engaged in social media" (Brandfog CEO survey results). In this scenario, nimbleness, responsiveness, partnering with online communities, ethics, written communication and managing networks, will be differentiating traits. Leaders could quickly step in to avoid any dent on company values by leveraging social media. For example Richard Branson, CEO, Virgin Group uses social media to "relate to as many people as possible" and has "AskRichard" as an available outlet to answer questions on the company for the global community.

The leadership challenge is further amplified for shared services centers and organizations located in multiple geographies, where the smooth interplay of effective communication and collaboration between senior leaders and managers is imperative to driving towards business goals. In this context, social media could be harnessed to reduce potential communication gaps and bond the global teams closer through a horizontal network of communication flows. Roland Deiser and Sylvain Newton state, in the Feb 2013 edition of McKinsey Quarterly, that organizational social-media literacy is fast becoming a source of competitive advantage. They elaborate further by providing the example of General Electric’s digital platform, GE Colab, designed by GE employees for GE employees to facilitate global teamwork and collaboration. Roland and Sylvain add that GE Colab combines the capabilities of Facebook, Twitter, and other social applications, allowing easy networking, information sharing, instant communication, advanced search, blogging, videoblogs, and more.

There is also initial evidence available on how social media can influence the price of a company’s shares. A study conducted in 2012 by social media consultancy, Sociagility, mentions that "higher social media performance scores were associated with positive changes in share price." Moreover, social media tools have the potential to change the patterns of work executed within the organizations and empower the workforce. Don Tapscott, professor at the University of Toronto, in an interview with McKinsey, highlights that social tools will enable "collaborative decision management" and constitute the "new operating systems for the 21st-century enterprise". Hence, shared services centers will be well-positioned by hosting a page on Facebook or LinkedIn to support new business conditions. Otherwise, they run the risk of remaining rooted in obsolete linear management models, while operating in a wired and transparent world.