The Art of HR: Building Social Networks

I studied two organizations this summer who renovated their buildings to specifically accommodate relationship building. Their central cores were filled with tables and couches for small or large gatherings. They both had a Starbucks inside the building (if there was ever an incentive to get me to work at a different company, that would be it) and strongly encouraged relationship building in meetings and interactions. The HR leaders at one of these organizations had a large cubicle for office space, not a segregated office hidden behind guards (also known as Executive Assistants). This leader admitted their social aspects were still a work in progress, but judging by my short visit, they seemed to be way ahead of other companies.

Social networking has evolved in various formats, using technological advances to allow people to communicate with their network in unique ways. These networks have infiltrated our workforce and have created numerous fluid dynamics in our workforce. Avid social networkers can now create a portfolio of jobs, without relying on one single employer. Charles Handy predicted this “portfolio life” more than twenty years ago. Handy argued that our society would see a rise of part-time and contracted work as people built portfolios of expertise. The collection of this expertise would form a ‘shamrock’ type of organization. Handy argued that a growing segment of the population would not work for a sole company, but rather contract out their services. Handy was mostly correct in his predictions, but even he probably did not foresee the explosion and extent of the technology and networks that would make this possible.

In today’s networked economy, when a person needs a realtor for example, they will look to their social network first, and will most likely give their business to someone in their social network, or someone recommended by their social network. Likewise for a plumber, interior decorator, photographer or bookkeeper. No amount of advertising can replace the recommendation of a friend. Corporations spend millions of dollars each year attempting to create campaigns that will encourage people to share the advertisements with their friends. “Check this out…” on a status update is the Holy Grail of advertisement, for better or for worse.

If I know five people who work at Company X and despise their jobs, my view of that organization will be tainted. I will probably not want to work there, nor will I purchase their products or services. But if I know five people who work at Company Z who love their jobs and speak very highly of their company, then I will want to work there. I will also be more likely to purchase their products or services. Employees are ambassadors for their organizations, whether they know it or not. The organization’s perceived value in a social network is only as good as the collective sum of the perceptions of their own individual value in that social network. As one HR leader described this to me, “good news begets good news. When you are a successful organization, people come to you.” This HR leader was quite proud of the fact that his organization spends very little on recruitment advertising but still receive more than 80,000 unsolicited applications each year.

The power of social networking remains elusive to most organizations and conquering this elusiveness will be the key to many organizations’ success globally in the 21st Century. Some organizations (including one of the ones I studied) are merging their communications departments into their HR department. They have realized that there is no such thing as internal and external communications anymore, and that they have untapped communications power in their employees. I foresee this convergence at many other organizations in the near future.

HR leaders must also be able to train leaders on how to effectively navigate the informal social network within the organization. Social competencies are extremely important, and helping employees increase their social acumen is as important as any other competency that trainers can train for. Social acumen is essential to innovation, and requires a unique blend of tact, perseverance, skills and internal alliances. To teach this, HR must first set an example for the rest of the organization by building its own internal social networks. Effective leadership in this area will be required of 21st Century HR Professionals, and we ignore this area to the detriment of our entire profession.

Handy, C. (1989). The age of unreason. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Advertisements

Book Review: Onward

Onward is an enigmatic but fascinating book. It reads like a memoir, shareholder report, Howard Schultz’s personal diary, and corporate promotional material at the same time. It is simultaneously brashly conceited and remarkably humble, while being completely engaging from cover to cover. The book details Schultz’s journey as he returned as ceo (Starbucks uses lower-case titles for some odd reason) and lead Starbucks through the economic turmoil of 2007-2010.

Schultz is simply passionate about Starbucks. And passionate is not the right word, but I am not sure the right one exists in the English vocabulary. He loves Starbucks. I wonder how many other Fortune 500 CEOs live and breathe their companies like Schultz does? I get the feeling that Schultz spends every awake moment thinking about coffee and Starbucks. If Inception was possible, I am sure Leonardo DiCaprio would find Schultz in a coffee roasting plant during his dreams too. But this passion is oddly appealing. He works not for the money, but because he loves his work. How many of us can say that about our jobs

Onward is a 100% biased read, and is a perfect book to kick back over a cup of coffee (Starbucks of course) and learn about the day-to-day life of a leader orchestrating corporate change. Few books give this much behind-the-scenes detail into what goes through a leader’s mind amidst corporate changes. For those aspiring to leadership positions, experiencing this is the benefit of reading Onward. I learned more about the actual life of a ceo, and the tough decisions they need to make. It isn’t an easy life by any means. If you want a book of theory or models, this isn’t worth reading. But if you want a great experiential story, then Onward is a great read.