Getting Your Employees To Share Their Best Ideas On Yammer, Chatter, And Enterprise Social

People think of social work tools as great ways to share—but in fact, employees often clam up. The president of Second City Communications on how to tease out employees' best ideas.

You might be reading this while taking a break from collaborating with your employees or colleagues via one of the social enterprise technologies that are popular on the job these days. If so, I’ll just take a minute so you can get back to them and not miss much.

Or will you miss anything at all? How much actual collaboration and honest sharing is going on via your new social enterprise tool?

For lots of companies, the answer is pretty shocking.

The vast array of Enterprise 2.0 and social CRM tools, platforms, applications, and other solutions available today promise to deliver an amazing new world—a social business nirvana. The thinking is: Your people will be collaborative, and your employees will be highly engaged, because the technology makes it so.

The social technology promise for the workplace is fairly simple: If we build it, they will come.

So—have they?

Not so fast, according to leading experts, who say adoption rates of social software tools are very low in business. One recent global survey puts the success rate at a dismal 10%. And some knowledge management people-in-the-know say the major culprit is this: Collaboration isn’t a technology, it’s a behavior. And implementing one doesn’t automatically make the other happen.

But the names of some of the most popular commercial platforms in the social enterprise world—Chatter, Yammer, and Jive, etc.—suggest instant connection and collaboration. Once you log in or click through, you’ll be up jamming with your colleagues and direct reports in no time. That’s all good, but wait: Your boss is watching—and so is her boss, and all the other bosses up the ladder.

So much for honest sharing and true collaboration. Better to play it safe, right?

Actually playing it safe is part of the problem, according to a 2012 report by McKinsey, which pegs the number of companies using social technologies at more than 70%. Here’s the rub: McKinsey says most companies could double the value they currently get from social tools by ditching hierarchies online and creating more open, direct, trusting, and engaging conditions.

As it turns out, employees are the same online as they are off. They need to be enthusiastic about engaging, unafraid to share what they have to say, and eager to work through whatever they’re looking to collaborate on. People get excited about things that are, well, exciting, engaging, honest, and interesting.

Think of it this way: Have you ever seen a white paper go viral? Nobody has. What catches fire and gets people connecting is stuff that's real and that people can relate to. Even ethics and compliance officers at hundreds of companies are learning to let their hair down a bit in order to break through the clutter and get employees engaged around serious and often difficult issues.

If they’re doing it, what’s your excuse for not moving in the same direction?

Better Stimulus=Better Results

The picture isn’t all bleak, and it’s true that many businesses are getting good results with social collaboration tools. In fact, some of the most highly rated places to work use them to build and enhance relationships on the job.

But too many companies grapple with low turnout and a lack of engagement—mostly because they’ve missed what makes for a successful rollout, according to Gartner: a powerful pull and reasons to get engaged.

Tips for Driving Collaboration in the Social Enterprise

In the theater world, the idea of a great platform but little engagement is like having a great stage, but playing to a half-empty house every night.

I’m writing from a perch just down the hall from one of the great theater stages in the world, the improvisational comedy powerhouse, The Second City. Our legacy of 50-plus years is grounded in the idea that playing it safe is limiting, that audiences love it when you change it up and keep it real. That same expertise around winning audiences has helped literally thousands of companies to set the right conditions for stronger, more collaborative teams, more agile workforces, and more adaptive organizations.

Here’s what we know: Your employees are being entertained in almost every form of media they consume today, especially social media, where they can also get in on the act. If you don’t have good audience response, look closely at your stimulus. Maybe it’s time to communicate mundane company policies and procedures with something unique that builds buzz.

Here’s how to move the needle and pack the house via your social collaboration tools:

Dialogues beat monologues: Audiences today expect interactivity in most anything they do. They don’t want to just watch the play, they want to play. Ask yourself: Do you have the right conditions for real and genuine dialog via your social collaboration platform? Or are you using it as a dressed up old-school employee portal for traditional one-way monologues?

Bring a brick, not a cathedral: In improvisation, small contributions matter as much as large ones. Small and short pays off in big and grand results. No need to convince all the millennials in your company about how short matters—they’re the leaders in short and fast. Take a lesson from where the media world is heading: bite-sized nuggets. Video. Big ideas in small packages.

Ensemble over hierarchy: In a fast-changing business world, hierarchy can harm and stifle engagement. Ensembles share the burden of creativity and help minimize the individual fear of failure. Beyond creating more and better ideas, ensembles also help shape and improve existing ideas.

Explore & Heighten Ideas: Ensembles don’t function well when the boss needs to be right and jams his agenda on the group. We all know what happens next: The group shuts down and the opportunity to further explore and improve new thinking is lost. Instead, affirm and build the ideas of others, what we in the improvisation world call "Yes, And." Ideas that are co-created (Yes, And-ed) tend to be better explored and heightened with ownership shared across many contributors.

Reserve judgment: You don’t have to love every idea but it helps to love every idea for at least a little while. Sometimes even the worst ideas provide new bridges to better ideas but it requires risk to support an idea you don’t quite understand—which often results in people playing it safe by holding back and finding flaws. It takes organizational commitment to view co-creation as an ongoing process, not a one-time outcome.

Embrace the funny: Humor engages people and stimulates conversation. Humor is a safe way to get to the truth. We nod our heads and laugh because we get it. Ask yourself: What do people like to watch, share, and talk about the most? Funny stuff is usually at the top of the list. But make sure the content plays to the top of their intelligence: When you make people laugh, you make them think.

—Steve Johnston is president of Second City Communications, the business solutions division of the world-renowned improvisational theatre company, The Second City.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Couse-Baker]

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6 Comments

  • Julien Gobeil Simard

    Social enterprise is just a new twist of knowledge management that puts more emphasis on people and profiles than content. In my opinion there are 3 key elements for a collaborative enterprise: culture, processes & habits and tools. This article is right that only an enterprise social network won't magically make a workplace suddenly more open and collaborative. A culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration must be there, or be built for any tool or process to work and bring value to the employees and the business. When the culture is there, there mught be some barriers to overcome. Read more about those here: http://blog.crowdbase.com/2013/12/13/the-5-barriers-to-knowledge-management/

  • Dallas McMillan

    Thanks, this is a great article for people excited about the potential of social enterprise technology, but still learning how to actually "make the magic happen" in terms of team uptake and engagement.

  • Olivier Amprimo

    Not convincing as you look at it from a communication angle. "stimulus". Your proposed strategy is precisely why it fails : it's not related to a business purpose.
    Why in the first place would you introduce such a technology? What problem do you wanna solve? What do you wanna achieve?
    There is no single mention of a purpose in this article ... and because of that some people come and ask about ROI and shot down the network (because you have no decent answer to provide).

    Remember : ROI question is a reality check for projects with no purpose, and a wake-up call for their pursuants.

  • Peter Tapscott

    Good stuff Steve, well thought through and articulates the key messages of making social work. Have a plan and implement it. Social is like any other tech platform, it needs people with ideas and passion to drive it.