The high-tech way to share and share alike

8 March 2011

Social media tools are providing a template for businesses that want their dispersed workforces to communicate more. Kristina Smith reports.

The Facebookers and Tweeters among you will know how useful social media is for picking people’s brains. Put out a question like “iPhone or BlackBerry?” and in no time your friends and associates will have provided you with opinions, advice and useful bits of information. It’s amazing what people know, if you just ask.

But now companies are beginning to realise that social media principles of informal peer-to-peer information exchange could be extremely useful within their businesses. Software tools are available that allow employers to run in-house forums modelled on LinkedIn or Twitter, offering construction companies a way to overcome the problem of corporate expertise being split between dispersed project sites.

Contractor Killby & Gayford is one company taking a lead. The south-east firm is launching what chief executive Chris Chivers FCIOB calls a “chat line” whereby its employees can ask questions of their fellow workers, with the answers being stored centrally in a dedicated area of the company’s new intranet, known as a “wiki”.

For instance, it will allow a site manager in Leeds who has a query about windows to ask a colleague in Guildford who tackled a similar issue. Using this system, he can get quick access to his colleague’s experience.

At present, many companies’ conventional knowledge management systems are rarely used by people on site, often because they can’t get to the information they want quickly enough.

A Google-type search tends to throw up a long list of documents, 90% of which won’t be useful. But Killby & Gayford hopes that the new approach of throwing out questions is more akin to picking up the phone and calling a few people who might know the answer — although it will in fact be more targeted and efficient.

But this system for sharing knowledge will only work if people actually start to use it, either by asking and responding to questions or by adding to the wiki. Chivers believes it will work because he finds that his site managers and other people in the £100m turnover business, who have an average age of 44, share his own pragmatic attitude towards technology. “I’m not into technology for technology’s sake,” he says. “I’m into technology if it works for me.”

Desire to communicate

Other companies are also concluding that social media’s success in harnessing people’s natural desire to communicate can be a useful business tool. Technology company Hewlett Packard runs an internal social networking tool called “Watercooler”, based on Microsoft Office Communicator software. As well as peer-to-peer communication, it is used to post company information and memos, with staff logging on every morning to see what’s new.

Phil Oakley, an HP country manager, says the tool is also a useful way to get yourself noticed, and to assist new and younger employees. “Some people will get known as communicators within the company, regardless of seniority. It’s also useful for learning and mentoring — it becomes more difficult when we’re all mobile and hot-desking.”

Another option, used by the software development team at online construction collaboration company Woobius, is called Yammer, a Twitter-like system that allows individuals to post comments, updates and weblinks, or contact their colleagues. Yammer can be used for free, although firms that want a customised version on their intranet — perhaps with company logos and branding — have to pay. Woobius director Bob Leung found it particularly useful when working in a dispersed team. “It overcomes a trust issue if you know what people are doing,” he says.

At Killby & Gayford, Chivers also hopes that employees will use the online forum to break down the normal barriers within the business, by putting questions and comments to him and the rest of the board. So the joiners who work in Killby & Gayford’s workshop in Billericay, who sometimes complain of feeling as though they are out on a limb, will have a PC in the canteen that will give them a real-time view of what’s going on in the business, and also provide valuable expertise for their colleagues. “We want people to understand what’s going on in the industry and what’s going on in the business,” says Chivers.

To make sure the “wiki” contains useful and engaging content, project teams have been tasked with producing videos during their team meetings — each month one lucky person will present an interesting element or challenge of the project to their colleagues.

Staff working on degrees will be able to put their dissertations and papers into the Wiki so that everyone in the business can access them. “There’s all that useful information out there,” says Chivers.

Chivers hopes that this approach will free up more time for people to be creative and encourage more good ideas to come up from the coal face. “What I want is for staff to bring things to the table and say ‘we could create a benefit for the business or a benefit for the client’,” he says. “Everybody is employed to bring their brain to work.”

Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have been enthusiastically adopted by many in the industry, opening up valuable communication channels. If companies such as Killby & Gayford can harness even a fraction of that value for themselves then social media is likely to be a fun and popular route to investment return.

Back to basics: Employment tribunals (pt 1)

An employment tribunal can be an intimidating arena for an employee. However, the system was established to allow individuals to represent themselves and employees should not be fearful of the prospect of taking their employer to tribunal should they have a genuine dispute to resolve. Alternatively, they can instruct legal representatives to act for them, as happened in 75% of tribunals 2009-10.

A claim must be filed within three months of the dismissal or offending act. An employee first has to complete a claim form known as an ET1, which asks for information such as job title, salary and start date, and allows the employee to set out the nature of their complaint and the remedy they are seeking.

The employer will then file a defence to the claim. The tribunal will set a time frame for tasks to be undertaken, such as the disclosure of documents, issuing of a schedule of loss by the employee (detailing what is being claimed), and exchange of witness statements.

At the hearing, the claimant will generally put their evidence across first and will then be cross-examined by the respondent (the employer), with the respondent giving evidence after the claimant.

Most claims take at least six months to come to full hearing, with some taking more than a year. Within that time, an employee may well have moved on and may not want to drag up the past. If they have a new job, they may be concerned about what their new employer might think about them suing their previous employer.

The average award in 2009-10 for unfair dismissal was £9,120. Only 13% of tribunal claims were successful, with 32% being withdrawn and 31% settled via ACAS (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service).

By Louise Holder, of the employment team, and Anna Stillman, of the construction team at law firm EMW

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