The office grapevine has moved online, and Twitter is the new water cooler.
Social media may be all the rage, and every company may want in, but for the majority of Indian companies grappling with the phenomenon, it is proving too tempestuous a beast to control.
From India alone, for instance, 18 million unique visitors logged on to Facebook in May, each of them posting multiple status messages that often dealt with their places of work. Ban these practices all you like, experts say, but employees will still find ways to log on to social media. Better, then, to ride the wave rather than risk going down with it.
Some Indian companies have already begun to learn this the hard way. When Infosys Technologies Ltd announced its IRace (Infosys Role and Career Enchancement) programme in April, changing the company’s hierarchy drastically, disgruntled employees lashed out at their company on blogs and Facebook.
Riding the wave: Wipro’s office in Bangalore. Wipro and HCL Technologies not only have social media policies, they also promote communication and events for their employees on these media. Hemant Mishra/Mint
“The company couldn’t do much then, because they didn’t have a social media policy in place,” says Mahesh Murthy, CEO of Pinstorm Consulting and a social media expert. Murthy mentions another large financial services firm that fired employees for commenting on Orkut about internal incentive programmes.
The time has arrived, then, for companies to institute social media policies—to define, in a sense, what sort of tweet is appropriate and what will earn a black mark. But Indian firms trying to do just this are emerging with very mixed results.
There are, on the one hand, the fast adopters. Technology and media companies that were the first to run head-on into social media were also, not surprisingly, the first to put basic guidelines in place.
Wipro Ltd and HCL Technologies Ltd not only have social media policies, they also promote communication and events for their employees on these media. A couple of months ago, the Spirit of Wipro run was promoted in real-time on Twitter and on its official Facebook page. “Wipro became one of the first companies to hold a Twitter conference, for our joint CEO to discuss our diversity initiatives,” says Rajan Kohli, Wipro’s chief marketing officer.
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HCL has named digital ambassadors who use their social networks and online personas to share ideas and help the company reach out. In HCL’s annual exercise to articulate the company’s vision, employees communicate with the CEO through Facebook. Infosys has formulated its own social media policy now, and is preparing to roll it out over the next six months.
The other early adopter has been the media sector. As traditional media houses have started to build digital presences, conglomerates such as HT Media Ltd and Bennet, Coleman and Co. Ltd specify what a journalist’s digital avatar can and cannot say online. (Mint has an extensive social media policy for its employees.) Print journalists typically cannot reveal their employer on their Facebook or Twitter pages, or post original opinions.
But here’s the catch with such a strategy: The Internet is a hard place to be anonymous. “If you are a well-known writer, even if you don’t identify yourself, people can easily put two and two together,” says Nishant Shah, of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS). “Policies like that are hard to implement and don’t really make sense.”
To be sure, there are exceptions; Open, the weekly magazine, looks at Facebook and Twitter as channels to direct traffic to its online content. “We have no policy of employees not identifying themselves on social media or associating themselves with the magazine,” says Rajesh Jha, a deputy editor at Open.
Another surprisingly prompt responder to social media trends has been the education sector. While most institutions don’t have restrictive policies for public platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, some have gone in a different direction and created closed networks. Shah argues that a closed network has the same features—and issues—as open social media.
“These are again peer-to-peer platforms, where teachers and students interact with each other, and any communication has a large audience and gets recorded for posterity,” he says. “This makes it as much of a social medium as Facebook or Twitter.”
Bangalore’s Christ University has created an institutional repository for every single submission made by students and faculty. Test grades and lesson plans are posted online, and students and teachers communicate through the system. The Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, has completely digitized its classrooms, so that write-ups on every lesson are available online. Students and teachers co-develop curricula through its platform as well.
One sector that has been slow to respond to these trends is the outsourcing sector. With annual attrition rates of 50-60%, these firms focus more on turnaround than on investment. Social media websites are typically banned altogether in call centres.
As social media evolves, ways to leverage it do as well. Large telecom firms such as Bharti Airtel Ltd, Tata Teleservices Ltd and Alcatel-Lucent use Facebook for research and development. Supriya Dhanda, Alcatel-Lucent’s head of human resources, says that her firm encourages “senior leaders...to keep blogs active and use them to promote key messages on strategy, people and operating mechanisms”.
In the US, a couple of smaller firms have been able to harness social media in innovative ways. Best Buy, an electronics retail chain, aggregates employee activity online, whether on blogs or Twitter, onto a platform called Best Buy Connect. Zappos, which sells shoes and bags online, has a similar Twitter aggregation tool that pulls any tweet mentioning the company. Employees are encouraged to post on the firm’s Facebook and YouTube pages, and its CEO, Tony Hsieh, has at least a million followers on Twitter.
But Murthy doesn’t necessarily think that Indian firms need to follow in the wake of US firms such as Intel, IBM and CNN, which have clearly defined social media policies. “First, the US is a litigious country and most social media policies there are circumscribed by what corporate lawyers allow employees to say and not say,” he says. “Two, Indian firms can actively use social media as a global marketing tool, especially because it involves no media costs. In the US, firms still look at it largely as a...customer-service function.”
Shah adds that India doesn’t have a clearly installed legal privacy framework, unlike the US or Australia. “What is public space and what is private is still largely a subject of interpretation,” Shah says. “So we will evolve our own path.”