In April of 2012, AT&T did something that most business observers never would have thought possible just a decade ago: its sold off its Yellow Pages business . Somebody else will have to let your fingers do the walking  from now on, because Ma Bell has slammed the door on what was once one of its biggest subsidiary businesses.
Even more incredibly, barely anyone noticed this era-ending event; that’s because landline telephone connections are quickly going the way of the fax machine, the beeper, and the dodo. Almost a third of American homes now use only cellphones, a rate that has doubled from 2008 and tripled from that of 2007. This seismic shift is most apparent in the under-40 demographic; those who grew up with mobile devices and don’t see the need for all those silly wires anymore.
It’s clear, as we move into 2013, that how we communicate continues to rapidly evolve. With iPads and other tablets now increasingly in the mix with smartphones, most of us are almost always just a keystroke or finger push away from going online--an important fact to any business. Why?
Because of Reed’s Law . Reed’s Law states that “the utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network” (if you love numbers, you can view the exact math here ). In other words, to paraphrase The Avengers’ greenest member, the Incredible Hulk , “The bigger Facebook gets, the stronger Facebook gets!” And Facebook, as well as Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and all the rest keep gaining more and more users who have more and more opportunities to use these social networks.
When any form of communication becomes this powerful, it’s seen as a double-edged sword to be viewed as a threat and a benefit. Until recently, employers’ kneejerk response to social media was the former, not the latter; social media was initially seen mostly as a time-waster for lazy employees (and still is by over half of U.S. CFOs, according to a recent survey ).
But now, there’s a fundamental shift occurring: Smart, innovative companies are beginning to see the benefit of training their employees  in the use of social media and are launching initiatives to actually encourage and harness the power of its usage. Here are four exciting recent examples of different approaches:
* Basic Training: A marketing department at Intel created a social media “boot camp”  to push employees into using the social sites to increase engagement. Those involved had to start using social media immediately, then “follow” brands or products they liked to use, and, finally, go out into the field and “check in” at local businesses, use QR codes to get discounts and accomplish other social media tasks that could be done on the run. The crash course worked: Intel’s Sylvia Salazar said of the effort, “The team moved from ‘It’s a waste of time, used primarily by teens and soccer moms’ and ‘I’m very skeptical about the usefulness of these technologies for business or professional use’ to ‘The boot camp helped me understand where the social tools work well and how it’s relevant to my job.”
* Creative Bribery: At Shopify, a Canadian e-commerce start-up, a Twitter-like platform was created for employees to share ideas and information--it was tagged with the fun name of UNICORN . When employees were reluctant to participate, a cash pool was created by management so the best ideas could earn real financial rewards. The real pay-off was for the company, which found that employee collaboration and innovation increased in markedly measurable ways.
* Keep It Inside: Unisys EO Ed Coleman last year thought social media was so important that he created an internal social network specifically for the tech firm’s management and employees . When Coleman began blogging on it, senior management took the hint and encouraged their division members to blog as well--"mini-blogs” with Unisys news items were also regularly posted. Employees created profiles and an “Ask Me About” feature enabled anyone within the organization to quickly find important inter-company information from a person who had it.
* Caring for Your Culture: PeopleMatter, creators of a software platform that manages hiring, training and scheduling, also impressively informs everyone inside and outside the company of their latest company endeavors through social sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. To quote Social HR blogger Ashley Lauren Perez , “To see a CEO of a company that is this openly invested in the business, his people, and his customers… well, there are no words.”
I’ve written in the past  about how a new generation of business leadership has pursued a more inclusive and participatory management style that’s raising results and increasing employee satisfaction. Part of this evolution is a growing embrace of social media within the workplace: a recent survey showed  that 41% of workers think their employer should make more of an effort to increase the social activity within a business. However, that same survey showed that twice as many managers are using social media as the people who work for them--meaning those in charge are allowed to do it, but their workers are not, presumably because it’s assumed they won’t get their work done.
But here’s the kicker: social media might actually allow them to do their work faster. A 2012 study done by the McKinsey Global Institute  demonstrated that social media activity can actually boost some employees’ productivity by 20% to 25%.
So maybe more leaders should stop fighting Reed’s Law and not only embrace it, but find ways to harness the power of this law to exponentially spring their brand and employee engagement to hulk like results. The current workforce is ready, willing and able to take us there.
[Image: Flickr user Rooners ]