Putting new media to work

Harnessing the social media model fosters employee engagement

Marketplace and business imperatives mean employees today must be more entrepreneurial and more involved than they were a mere decade ago. Demographic trends mean large segments of the workforce will soon be retiring, and a lot of organizations are struggling with ways to better engage their workers.

B.C.’s largest employer is the B.C. government, with some 30,000 employees, and it faced the same challenges as many businesses, albeit on a larger scale. Its solution was appropriately larger, and was so successful that other big organizations are now studying it as a model for the workplace of the future.

The Problem
In 2006, Jessica McDonald, at the time deputy minister to the premier and B.C.’s top bureaucrat, realized that the B.C. government workforce faced significant challenges. Many of its Baby Boomer employees would retire over the next decade and be replaced by a different kind of employee, one more suited to a more democratic and open style of working. At the same time, changing economic conditions and technology dictated that the government workforce would likely shrink in future. The government needed a way to not only to recruit new employees but engage existing ones.

The Solution
McDonald hatched a plan to transform the way the government acted as an employer. She would convert the government’s existing employee Internet portal, which provided official information and resources related to working for government, into an Intranet, an internal network accessible to all employees that would enable more two-way communication. Soon the new intranet, named @Work, was launched, but although it enabled some employee feedback, for example through polling, and access to more media, including video, it was essentially still a one-way conversation based on the old-media model, of the employer broadcasting information out to its employees.

However, in 2007, when @Work editor Robin Farr archived all the past articles that had been posted, Intranet traffic exploded. Within a month, there was a 2,800-percent increase in hits to the site. Quickly, the site evolved into being more conversational. Employees began posting comments in writing and videos, not only on articles published on the site, but on issues of concern to them. Eventually, the commentary section evolved into a discussion forum in which some employees began to reach out to other departments, in essence collaborating to self-create a form of cross-functional teaming that breaks down departmental barriers to better solve problems.

The government Intranet also features a popular section for employee interview videos, in which they comment on their jobs and are invited to deliver what the site refers to as their “two cents’ worth” comments on diverse subjects such as climate change to the best qualities of a co-worker.

By allowing workers to create their own conversations, @Work became a sensation within the civil service. The site receives up to 700,000 hits a month and sections of it are often re-edited for recruiting purposes. More interesting is that other governments and organizations are flocking to B.C. to see how they can copy it. The site’s success was featured on Ragan.Com, a U.S. website aimed at corporate communicators, and Farr now speaks at conferences in the U.S. on how to better engage employees through Intranets.

• Let it go. Old-school command-and-control methodology doesn’t work with today’s workforce. If you want them to be engaged, you’re also going to have to let them talk to each other.

• Lose the corp-speak. People will only respond to an intranet if it speaks in their language, and does not mimic “official” corporate speak. Today, they want conversations, not messages.

• Break down the silos. Intranets are the information exchange that creates communities. But to do so, they must allow people to speak with others in their larger “community”, not just a few people who share their outlook. n