By Daniel Hunter

A resistance to change and a lack of social media savvy amongst senior leaders is holding organisations back from rebuilding trust and fostering cultures of openness, collaboration and innovation in their organisations.

That’s according to new CIPD research on the current landscape of social media and employee voice, launched today at the annual Voice and Value conference at the London School of Economics.

The CIPD is urging employers to recognise that social media is driving us headlong into an age of mass collaboration and mass transparency, and if they don’t embrace this with open arms they will find themselves on the back foot.

The research, conducted for the CIPD by Silverman Research, highlights that social media presents employers with the opportunity to truly engage their staff in shaping the future direction of their organisations. Not only does it give employees an open channel through which to feed views upwards, but it also enables greater collaboration and knowledge sharing between employees at all levels, which is how new ideas and innovation prosper. What’s more, social media interactions give organisations access to a unique blend of qualitative and quantitative data that can drive greater employee and customer insight.

The report comes hot on the heels of a worrying deterioration in employee voice, recorded by the CIPD’s quarterly Employee Outlook last month, and highlights that traditional employee surveys designed to give employees a voice can actually distract many leaders from listening and acting on employees’ true ideas and concerns.

The new research concludes that the biggest barrier preventing employers from embracing social media as a channel for employee voice is inaction and resistance to change amongst leaders. It found senior leaders often lack understanding of how social media works and the power of the data it can generate.

In particular, it argues that too much weight is given to the potential perils associated with a more open approach, while the benefits of more traditional systems are overrated. This prevents leaders from driving the cultural shift required in moving from a top-down hierarchical culture to a transparent culture that fosters openness, honesty, collaboration and innovation.

Meanwhile, employees in some organisations that have been slow to embrace social media have taken matters into their own hands by forming unofficial channels of communication between fellow colleagues and external audiences.

“For organisations to thrive, employees must be given the opportunity to discuss how their organisations can innovate and feed their views upwards, as well as having the freedom to blow the whistle about genuine issues at work,” Jonny Gifford, research adviser at the CIPD, commented.

“Social media won’t always be the most appropriate channel for discussing issues, but employers must wake up to the fact that they can’t ignore it. Employee voice expressed through social media is much more influential because it is more likely to be heard. In comparison, employee surveys are ‘voice without muscle’. Social media affects even organisations that have been slow in the uptake, whether they realise it or not or whether they like it or not, so employers must start designing their own future in employee voice before it designs them.

“Our research suggests that the risks associated with inaction are far greater than those associated with embracing social media as a channel for employee voice. We need to remain alive to some of the potential risks of social media — for example, will it make organisations more susceptible to group think and social herding, which aren’t always conducive to organisational growth and success?

“But employers should also be thinking hard about the opportunity social media gives them to simultaneously collect opinions and facilitate discussion about genuine opinions and ideas, and to analyse the data in rich and meaningful ways. ”

Regardless of the channels of communication at play, the CIPD advises employers to ensure that they create the right cultures and conditions in their organisation for employee voice to flourish, so that wrongdoing is called out and good ideas and innovation prosper:

– People will only speak up when they feel it is safe to do so, so senior managers must drive a culture of transparency and honesty, in which employees trust the organisation enough to express their views, whether they are invited to offer them or do so of their own volition

– If employees feel their suggestions are unlikely to go unheard, they will be more likely to feel that input is simply wasting time. Explanations should always be offered by leadership if certain suggestions cannot be put into practice and employees who make valuable suggestions for change and innovation should receive due recognition

– Adopting social media within organisations is one way of helping to develop these conditions.

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