On February 4, 2004, a handful of Harvard students logged onto a newly launched website called thefacebook.com. Just a dozen years later, some 2 billion people—nearly a third of the planet's population—are social media users.
So if companies are having trouble keeping up with that pace of adoption, it's no surprise. Businesses have overcome their earlier skepticism and raced head-on into the social arena, chasing the estimated three-quarters of consumers who now say social media influences their buying decisions. Nearly 90% of U.S. companies are currently using Twitter, Facebook, and other networks—all jockeying for their share of the estimated $1.3 trillion in value that social media stands to unlock.
There's just one small problem: The contemporary workforce is woefully ill-equipped to help companies unlock it.
While social media races ahead, formal training and education programs are lagging seriously behind. If that isn't making headlines, it's testament to social media's comprehensive mainstreaming: "Facebook? I use that everyday. Who needs to be trained in it?"
Yet a meager 12% of the 2,100 companies in a 2010 Harvard Business Review survey said they're using social media effectively. And more recent research by Capgemini and others show that confidence gaining only incrementally.
Reports of social media gaffes and blunders in the workplace are still routine. Meanwhile, the real price of the skills gap often goes unnoticed—billions of dollars in missed opportunities and lost revenue.
The clearest culprit is the breakneck proliferation of new platforms and features. Around a year ago, Snapchat was still a toy for teens to trade disappearing messaging; today it's the latest way to reach young customers on their own turf. As more platforms incorporate more sophisticated features, even the most plugged-in users are struggling to keep up.
At the same time, how social media is used in the workplace is fundamentally changing. Just a few years ago, social media in the office was the domain of specialized social media managers, the gatekeepers who owned a company’s public face on the leading platforms. In a short time, however, social media duties have been radically democratized and decentralized. The number of job descriptions on Indeed.com mentioning social media skills is booming: "[We’re] seeing this demand span many levels, from executive assistants to senior vice presidents," Amy Crow, Indeed’s then communication director told Quartz a few years ago.
Since then, employees have been asked to use social media in ever more numerous and unfamiliar ways. The standard marketing functions are just the tip of the iceberg. Social tools are being used to streamline customer service, drive sales, improve HR processes, and build employee brand advocacy programs.
Meanwhile, platforms like Facebook at Work (in beta now and expected to roll out this year) and Slack (which boasts millions of users, from NASA to your corner coffee shop) are quickly changing how workers collaborate. By bringing social messaging inside the office, these technologies are breaking down silos and boosting productivity (although some disagree). Social media is no longer a discrete thing that certain people do in certain jobs, and more of an integral component of work itself.
But this approach only works if employees are on board and up to speed. "The real problem is that we expect people to know these skills without providing any training," William Ward, professor of social media at Syracuse University, recently told me. Social media know-how isn’t something you just pick up as a casual user. And it isn't just older employees who are in the dark—millennial hires need training, too.
"Because somebody grows up being a social media native, it doesn’t make them an expert in using social media at work," Ward says. "That’s like saying, ‘I grew up with a fax machine, so that makes me an expert in business.’"
Fixing this social skills gap is no small task. In the long term, social media coursework is slowly being incorporated into university programs, and not just for students pursuing marketing and communications degrees. Here at Hootsuite, for instance, we've developed a social media syllabus that's now being used in more than 400 universities around the world by 30,000 students. Programs like these offer a foundation of social media skills for the workplace and may one day be as commonplace as introductory college writing and computer skills classes.
But what about employees struggling right now with the growing demands of social business? The good news is that companies are beginning to acknowledge social media literacy as a critical job skill (just like Internet and basic computer literacy back in the day) and are starting to offer on-the-job training programs. Altimeter reports that almost half of the companies it surveyed are planning on rolling out some kind of internal social education program for employees, while overall spending on corporate training is on a serious upswing, rising 15% in the U.S. in a recent year to $70 billion.
The challenge, of course, is how to teach social media in such a mercurial environment. In the last year alone, for instance, we’ve seen the meteoric rise of "social video" and a whole new crop of one-to-one messaging apps, while Twitter has struggled to reinvent itself.
But few employees have time for in-depth courses or bootcamps. Ultimately, the right training solution needs to be on-demand and mobile-friendly. Currently, some of the best paid options are coming not from traditional educational sources, but from companies immersed in the social and digital media space, offering real lessons from the front lines. (Hootsuite’s own online course, Podium, is one free alternative, with 50,000 users and counting.)
Ultimately, though, any investment in upgrading social media skills in the workplace is likely to be money well spent. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other networks aren’t going away. Social business has become business as usual. Indeed, social media budgets at companies are expected to double in the next five years.
To avoid throwing good money after bad, companies need to ensure that their employees actually know how to use new and emerging social technologies. Those that succeed in closing the social media skills gap will discover new ways to reach and retain customers, engage and recruit employees, and boost productivity. Those that fail will miss out on their chunk of a multitrillion-dollar pie, and might not be around long enough to regret it.