· Features

Saving Face (book): has the time come for HR to love social networking?

As an HR professional you might have spent the past few years trying to outlaw networking sites. But now is the time to embrace Web 2.0.

More than two thirds of UK businesses are using Web 2.0 as an alternative to email and information sharing. The same businesses are losing £1.83 billion every year in productivity because employees are using social networks such as Twitter at work.

In a survey of 1,460 office workers, commissioned by IT services firm Morse, 57% of respondents said they use social networking sites for personal reasons during work time.

Web 2.0 is the term used to define the latest versions of web presence, with an emphasis on communication and development, rather than the static displays so typical of the earlier iterations of Web culture.

At the forefront of everyone's understanding of Web 2.0 applications are social networking sites designed to bring together groups of people or common interest communities, including Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn.

Effectively, the tag  ‘social' as a prefix to ‘networking site' has repelled HR departments with its nightmare vision of people chattering electronically all day, and, it has to be admitted, they do.

The HR community seems to be divided as to the nature of social networking; some have banned it as the new anti-Christ, others embrace it as the way forward without seeming to know why.

If the mobile phone gave people with little to say more opportunity to say it, then most social networking has facilitated the exchange of infantile electronic prattle.

This is unfortunate; it's a good idea to run an organisation-wide social networking site. Internal emails will be more personal, and platforms for problem-solving, knowledge sharing and instruction and training manuals or templates more informally set up rather than what currently happens on the rather turgid intranet sites.

This type of set-up would work well for modern matrix working patterns that have broken down the old pyramid structures in many nimble organisations.

Confidential records - viewable only to those with appropriate security access - such as holidays, sickness, personal and employment details could actually sit behind the ‘friendly' profile pages, and be reportable to those who need that information.

This could be expanded to take account of the personal targets and milestones set for each employee, so that at varying levels of security, the whole of a person's data sits behind their personal profile on the site.

Imagine the benefit of clicking on to someone's profile to find out if they are in the office that day.

The lines between organisational networking site and HR system would be blurred. The organisation site can maintain secure links to the outside, perhaps to secure vendors / suppliers or even clients and user groups.

If you go further and hang a payroll and time and attendance module behind the whole thing, you have something a lot more sexy than the bog standard HRIS.

All this will not impact on HR very quickly. HR has been perhaps the most laggard of the service functions, including IT, finance and facilities, to adopt or even understand new technology.

Rolled together, we should expect to see product evolution of the type described above, enabling organisational communication, and perhaps even strengthening the brand and esprit de corps of the bodies deploying them.

HR and payroll systems would be less rigid in structure, more modular (and even mini-modular) with the option of a host of add-ons that allow the rapid development of media for training, learning, recruitment, and more matrix involvement by employees into the business rather than traditional function silos.

All of these developments would bring the concept of a real-time dashboard very much closer. In fact, the term ‘dashboard' will in all probability be replaced by an expression more akin to ‘pulse'.

This pulse would convey constant information about targets set and achieved, milestones, progress in personal development and fiscal and headcount information.

The daily survey question will reveal what concerns the workforce most about their jobs, their managers, the product and the organisation. Process improvements suggested by the workforce could be fast-tracked to implementation, finally giving tools to aspirant, agile organisations.

Who will develop this? HRIS software vendors have proved themselves to be rather conservative in their thinking up to now, probably reflecting the nature of their market. However, there is a burgeoning number of tech-savvy HR people, so the game will have to be raised to catch their attention - and make that sale.

If you had a company of 1,000 people you could create a mini-Facebook that had a public-facing bit where people would just flash messages to each other without having to use email, and then you could set up groups on there for sharing information and setting up meetings.

Lois Melbourne, CEO of Aquire, a Texas-based workforce planning and management solutions firm, says that in the US savvy firms have been quick to see the potential of social networks as free, easily accessible technology.

"I think you will see more companies using application integration with LinkedIn or Facebook allowing their technology to serve up employee profiles or resumés - instead of recreating it in a corporate application," says Melbourne. "I think as more people in the HR industry have adopted the concept of social networking it has broadened their perspective that technology doesn't always have to be purchased to have an impact."

HR departments are due for a status update on the technology front. Rather than outlawing social networking sites, we need to backtrack and start encouraging mini-Facebooks - albeit on HR departments' own terms.

Denis Barnard is the CEO of the UK's first HRIS comparison website, HRcomparison.com