Internal Social Media: “Scary Monsters”?

Joined-up thinking

‘Collaboration’, ‘Cooperation’, and ‘Joined-up’ thinking – just a few of the terms used by organisations delivering public services. Authorities who have traditionally done their own thing are finding ways to reduce costs, improve productivity and streamline services. Joint procurements are commonplace, with essential pieces of infrastructure like IT, Accounts and HR increasingly shared across different disciplines and geographies.

With so much emphasis on cross-organisational working there’s a risk that the barriers to productivity within organisations could be overlooked. Managers and staff – under pressure to deliver more for less – focus primarily on their own part of the service. Although most probably attend briefings, there might be little opportunity to gain fresh insights or exchange information with colleagues outside the immediate team.

Social Media: Scary Monster?

Social media evangelists argue that free and low cost tools exist to help to break down silos and improve the flow of information within – and beyond – organisational boundaries. Most public sector organisations do already have some sort of social media presence; this is usually on Twitter, but also Facebook, and a smaller number on YouTube, Google+ and others like Pinterest.

So why isn’t social media already part of the standard workplace toolkit?

Many organisations do have a social media presence, but they tend to use it to broadcast messages to their followers, essentially making it an extension of the press office

Internally, intranets provide a mechanism for organisations to share approved content. Some also operate staff suggestion schemes, allowing brave individuals to submit ideas for consideration.

Social media disrupts the traditional way organisations communicate, both with their staff and customers.

Er, so what is ‘Social Media’?

‘Social Media’ is a broad term and there are many definitions. I quite like AG Communications Group’s version:

‘Social media essentially is a category of online media where people are talking, participating, sharing, networking, and bookmarking online’

If you haven’t already seen it, the famous video on YouTube: The Social Media Revolution 2012 Why Social Business Matters is well worth a look.  One quote that really sticks in the mind is:

Social media isn’t a fad, it’s a fundamental shift in the way we communicate.

It’s easy to portray Social Media as something of a monster, particularly in a sector which is highly regulated and with a culture of command and control. It’s both easy to criticise and difficult to disprove the criticism. Here are a few examples:

  • What’s the business benefit in people telling each other what they’ve just had for breakfast?
  • There’s no control – what if people say inappropriate things and we get sued?
  • Staff would just waste their time when they should be working
  • It’s fun new technology – fine in your own time, but not during work-time
  • No one reads books any more – social media is a massive distraction
  • etc

Business Case vs JFDI

Business cases are formal documents, requiring tangible, measurable outputs, usually for an initial investment. It’s difficult to persuade decision-makers to invest time and money in something without knowing how it’ll be used.

The difficulty in writing a compelling business case for internal social media has resulted in small groups finding ways to collaborate without waiting for official endorsement.

Probably the most popular example is Yammer, which refers to itself as ‘The Enterprise Social Network’. There are many examples where Yammer has initially been ‘tolerated’, but then been adopted as the organisation recognises the benefits. The fact that Yammer has recently been bought by Microsoft perhaps underlines the assertion that internal social networking is finally becoming  mainstream.

Benefits of JFDI

  • Start small, with a few enthusiastic individuals
  • If it goes wrong, individuals, not the organisation, have chosen to take the risk
  • No money gets paid up-front
  • Allows different approaches to be tried
  • Be prepared to fail, but fail forwards
  • Don’t need to pre-define – social media is different things to different people e.g.
    • brainstorming
    • sounding board
    • support forum / ask an expert
    • vox pops
    • good ideas
    • generate discussion etc to be shared internally
    • virtual project team (not tied to location or working times)

Risks of JFDI

  • Lack of senior management or IT support
  • Someone says something really stupid
  • Conversation withers on the stem – needs a core group to keep it going
  • Risk averse culture – there is risk in everything we do – there is risk in not doing anything
  • Technological or security limitations (old browsers, blocked social media sites etc)

In last week’s #lgovsm chat on Twitter, Carl Haggerty summed up the issue with the following:

Constructive Disruption

There are many challenges to traditional roles in organisations, and social media can be a disruptive influence for a variety of areas such as ICT, Communications, and Finance. Experts are still very much needed, but their role is shifting from doing to empowering others to do more for themselves.

Been there, done that, got the T shirt

Cuddly T-REX
Social Media: Not such a monster when you get to know it

Those who have successfully introduced internal social media systems speak enthusiastically about the benefits, some of which include:

  • Improved flow of information, leading to greater productivity
  • Improved re-use of techniques that have been successful in different parts of the organisation
  • Staff feel more involved, better informed, and more likely to participate
  • Creation of virtual teams
  • Reduced need for physical meetings thereby reducing the need to travel
  • ‘Lone’, remote or home workers not feeling left out
  • Improved retention of knowledge in the organisation
  • Improved willingness to question and suggest improvements

They also emphasise the importance of setting some ground rules so people know the boundaries they are working within. Participants in last week’s Local Gov Social Media chat (#lgovsm) gave some tips for a few social media platforms and products. Here are a few of the more notable points:


  • Cambridgeshire Police and Devon County Council (social.devon) have active blogs on their Intranet
  • All the directors at Merton Council blog on the intranet and they are experimenting with guest bloggers
  • Bloggers to be disciplined and write regularly. If bloggers lose interest then so do the audience and the blog becomes a dead space
  • Different bloggers have their own style – some can be work focused while others are much lighter in their approach
  • There is no right answer but what works best for audience
  • Remember that what you say on internal social media is covered under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation.
  • Lack of comments on blog posts doesn’t (necessarily) mean people aren’t reading them – lack of comments might be due to culture. Check the stats for reader numbers


  • There’s an active local government group on Yammer. All you need to join is a .gov email address
  • It’s important to abide by your employing organisation’s security policy
  • There’s a useful guide: Best Practices for Managing Your Yammer Network (via @mgrafham)
  • Also Safe, Secure and Private (via @mgrafham)
  • Birmingham City Council has about 436 Yammer users  with around 20 sub-groups – enabling like-minded people to chat within a group (via James Cattell)
  • Lincolnshire Police has been using Yammer for several years
  • Yammer may also be used with the recently formed VOSTUK to help communicate messages between volunteers and regional groups
  • Many like using Yammer in much the same way as they do Twitter, but with the safety or “in-house” rather than public and no 140 character restrictions
  • Yammer can also be implemented in some organisations without ICT considerations around hosting and security as it’s hosted externally
  • The paid for version of Yammer has a fairly good IP firewall, but people still need to sensible about what they post, as it’s hosted on an external system.
  • It also has a centralised administration compared to the community driven administration on the free version.


  • If the information being discussed is not sensitive then Twitter can be a great tool for collaboration
  • Twitter can be a great tool to disseminate a message really quickly
  • There’s a sharing ethos
  • People don’t have to know each other
  • Mix of work cultures
  • A collaborative forum (online chats)
  • Ideal collaboration outside of work hours/networks and allows like-minded people who want to make a difference connect with each other

Other tools and platforms

  • Some councils use a shared social Extranet for collaboration with partners
  • Some organisations run forums on their internal systems (intranets) so that ideas can be shared
  • ELGG is a powerful open source social networking engine, similar to Yammer.
  • Bespoke systems are being developed such as ‘hubchat’ which is based on the Twitter model.
  • SharePoint is used by some as a collaboration tool for documents – this is included within many Microsoft enterprise agreements

This post was a joint-effort between Sasha Taylor and Mark Braggins.
Photo credits
1. mcdlttx on Flickr
2. Noah’s Animal Figurines

By Mark Braggins

Walking, usually with my two ex-racing greyhounds. Interested in lots of stuff. Work: Business Development and Research at Drawnalism