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At a recent seminar on employee engagement the concept of an “employee voice” featured strongly.

My own experience brings back terms such as “employee participation”, team briefing, upside down pyramids, joint consultative committees and (now enshrined in law) works councils; among others. The truth for employers is that it is relatively easy to communicate downwards through the organisation but far more difficult to learn from the “coalface” (another historical term) what is actually going on.

I’ve lived through suggestions schemes too (still being suggested in some quarters) and the fundamental problem is that communicating uncomfortable truths up the organisation is both difficult and potentially dangerous. Ideas become jokes and threats to those who feel they should have thought of them (and carried them through) first.

Quality circles and total quality management had some limited success where they were accepted but the demise of Japan as a world leader in management think means the terms have substantially disappeared.

So could social media succeed in creating better communication where so many initiatives have failed to do so? Will it give employees “a voice”?

I am tempted to suggest it might, just. Earlier initiatives have been driven largely by employers themselves, or accepted reluctantly where driven by Trade Unions. But social media is driven primarily by employees. Employers, particularly the baby boomer generation, are struggling to keep up.

Is it a threat or an opportunity?

If social media is used to criticise the organisation externally then undoubtedly it is a threat. A sound social media policy should protect an organisation and enable action, as it did in the case of Apple retail.(Crisp v Apple Retail (UK) Ltd ET)

But I’d ask you to consider if it might also represent an opportunity. Tata consultancy services in India found that setting up a simple online forum provided invaluable contributions from people working outside their strict job descriptions. The “silo” structure (where communication between departments or functions can only be at the very top of an organisation) cannot survive if there is an in-house social media platform.

Younger generations are pushing new ideas. Social media can help define your culture, create engagement, enable ideas to cross-fertilise and improve your” employer of choice” rating in a world where there is likely to be increasing competition for knowledge workers.

It may indeed give employees a voice. The question may arise as to how will you handle it? My advice is to embrace it. Enterprise social media platforms, such as Yammer, enable employers to provide that voice to employees. Enterprise-based social media doesn’t provide absolute control (that would defeat its objective). However it does enable an employer to retain some handle. Employees will be less tempted to “wash your dirty linen in public” and suffice to do it in private. Interestingly, internal social media activity may help employers to know “what is going on”. Something which, in my experience, they sometimes don’t know!

Hereto employers have had substantial control over an organisation’s culture. They may struggle to retain such absolute control in the future. But I submit that may not be all bad. Embracing social media could have real benefits to the bottom line that are difficult to predict just now.

Time to make friends.