05/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Riding the Social Media Wave

For years, forward thinking business leaders have espoused the virtues of involving employees in decision-making as a means of driving engagement. Give them a voice, the mantra goes. Don't talk at them; facilitate a meaningful dialogue. Then along comes social media (content created by the people, for the people) to share ideas, build communities, and influence one another's actions. It doesn't take long for those of us responsible for driving employee engagement to realize its potential to put the "involvement = commitment" theory into action. We can empower employees across functions, and in some cases across the globe, to share their thinking about how we can make the most of our businesses -- what works well, what we should develop, how we should go about attaining our goals. What's more, the conversation, and thus the feedback, doesn't stop. The elusive "wisdom of the masses" is but a mouse click away.

Then the dream came crashing down around us.

How do we manage the user-generated content (UGC) of independent thinking employees? How do we effectively respond to their questions and suggestions? What if we don't have the resources, budget, or leadership alignment to act on their ideas?

They're valid questions. Moreover, implementing social media in the workplace forces us to wrestle with deeply entrenched perceptions of what the roles of "employee", "leader" and "communicator" mean. To empower employees with a voice demands leaders who are willing to be participants in the conversation and communicators who are able to facilitate and influence that dialogue. For some organizations, this evolution is simply the next step in a journey towards flatness that began many years ago. For others, re-imagining how people interact across levels, via social media or otherwise, is a philosophical sea change.

Interestingly, social media raises a similarly scary conundrum for organizations interacting with consumers. To open the door to their input regarding your brand, its strengths, and its deficiencies might be seen as an invasion of your corporate privacy. Sure, effective branding has always taken the consumer's perspective into consideration, but how active a role do we really want the public to play in influencing the future of our businesses. Despite these parallels, doubt surrounding the benefits of external social media applications has largely gone away. The blogosphere is talking about your enterprise whether you're part of the conversation or not. Consumers are tweeting about how lame (or amazing) your Super Bowl ad was even if you're not reading and responding to those messages. The point is, we've accepted the fact that our brands are no longer simply the images we project. Consumers' power to shape how their social networks perceive our organizations and what we stand for is far more striking than any ad campaign.

If we buy the idea that there is a perpetual digital conversation happening about our businesses among consumers, and that we have to join that party as much to protect our brands as to influence peoples' perceptions of them, then why don't we extend the same courtesy to our employees? If you're looking to grow brand ambassadors -- employees who can advocate for you on the Web, at the bar, or at the local tabernacle -- why would you deny them a forum to share their perspectives with one another in which you, the leaders and communicators, can be active participants in shaping how they think and feel?

Modern brand-building is a bottom-up affair, and it starts with employees. Social media is an efficient mechanism to connect with employees, harvest their ideas, address their concerns, and begin the process of cultivating an army of brand spokespeople. It won't happen overnight, and in an age where ROI is measured quarterly at the least, the upfront costs of upping your organization's social media game may intimidate the feint of heart. But if you believe that employees are your "most precious resource" and that their engagement is tied to their productivity and thus your bottom line, than you'd be wise to at least explore the digital waves, if not paddle out into the uncharted waters of social media in the workplace. Enjoy the ride.

Daniel Dworkin is an Associate Consultant at Stromberg Consulting, a Ketchum firm specializing in employee engagement and change management.