When a pliers isn't a pliers

Social Media For HR: When Pliers Aren’t Necessarily Pliers

Depending upon who you talk to, social technology for business and more specifically social media for HR, is either one of the most profound transformations happening in the workforce or the most overhyped thing since the introduction of the Segway – and typically there isn’t much middle ground.  So why the Great Divide?  In wrestling down this apparent contradiction, I came across a famous problem-solving experiment designed by Norman Maier in 1931 and recently discussed in a blog by Scientific American.

The Problem:  Two strings were hanging from the ceiling. The participant was asked to tie the two strings together. However, it was impossible to reach one string, while holding the other. Several items were also available, such as a pole, an extension cord and a pair of pliers.

The Results:  Most participants, while holding onto one string, unsuccessfully tried to use the pole and the extension cord to reach the other string. The solution actually required the participant to tie the pliers to the bottom of one string, then use it as a pendulum and catch it as it swings toward you, while you hold the other string. Of course, if you are like me you are probably thinking – I would have thought of that!  But in reality, very few people could visualize using the pliers as something other than pliers.

So what does all this have to do with social technology for HR?

A similar phenomenon is at play in the corporate “psyche”.  A strong underlying societal norm conditions us into believing that “socializing at work” gets in the way of productivity. The origin of social technology causes it to fly straight into these strong headwinds.  Social networking burst into our collective consciousness as primarily a personal socialization tool.  I continually cross paths with business leaders, HR practitioners and managers who share a strong preconceived notion of:

  • the nature of social media,
  • the likelihood of employees abusing it, and
  • its limited scope of business utility.

These opinions have been primarily shaped based on experiences from our personal lives.  The combination of these factors often predisposes sentiment against bringing a “social tool” into the workplace.  It is hard for people to visualize a change in the tool’s use.  

If one is able to break through these initial reservations, the next major hurdle often is that cultural and organizational barriers cause limited scope deployments of social media relative to HR practice.  Companies tend to “experiment” with social HR technologies for things like ideas management, recruitment, basic profiles and personal interest work communities.  Often these new technologies are deployed in stand-alone sites and not embedded at the core of an employee’s day-to-day work – in essence, becoming another to-do.  As a result, the gains from use of this new technology do not reach their full potential.

This doesn’t have to be the case.

In a recent McKinsey Quarterly article, How Social Technologies Are Extending The Organization, research indicates “when adopted at scale across an emerging type of networked enterprise and integrated into the work processes of employees, social technologies can boost a company’s financial performance and market share.”

Relating back to Norman Maier’s famous problem solving experiment for a moment, the one thing which increased the participants’ success in considering the pliers for a different purpose was a visual cue – specifically, when the experimenter “by accident” brushed one of the strings to induce a swinging motion.  Over the next series of posts on this topic, we are going to get the string in motion by providing practical examples of how social media for HR can transcend current assumptions and lead to significant strategic and operational advances for today’s business leaders.  We’ll illustrate, through practical real-life examples, how social technologies for HR can successfully be used to create new work processes that support a more connected, engaged and productive workforce.

Here are a few teasers:

  • Deploy virtual “centralized” HR service delivery strategies comprised of role-based subject matter experts, online community-based knowledge centers and real-time consultation tools
  • Leverage just-in-time role-based experts embedded directly within HR processes
  • Craft engaging preboarding and onboarding processes that drive down time-to-productivity
  • Find, assemble and reward employee teams based on specialized knowledge, internal social media contributions, self-declared career interests and endorsements from peers.

Now if I can only visualize a different use for that Slap Chop I bought during a late night infomercial.

Cary Schuler, CEO, cfactor Works Inc.  @CarySchuler

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