Tuesday, July 10

Communicating For Success: Social Media

Over the past few weeks, I've infused a few posts on how understanding traditional human capital and internal communication might cross over into social networks. For the most part, it included theory without a proven case study.

When I wrote the article, I turned to Southwest Gas Corporation (Southwest Gas) to provide a case study because I knew it was the fastest-growing natural gas company in the United States and consistently benefited from an exceedingly strong internal brand. What struck me about the company then (as it does today) was that its employee-to-customer ratio had increased from 1:415 in 1994 to 1:537 in 2000, but the average employee had 11 years in with the company despite being largely based in a market where 2-3 years was the norm.

"We've continually asked our employees to do more with less," said Robyn Clayton, then manager of consumer and community affairs. "In return, we work hard to provide a satisfying culture and keep them informed. The result is a motivated, loyal workforce."

When Southwest Gas projected natural gas rates would rise the year before, it launched an internal communication plan months before the rate increase impacted the company. Because its leadership recognized that employees would be asked questions by family, friends, and customers in the field, early internal education proved vital to the success of the company (the model still used today).

"By developing a long-term plan that demonstrated we were forthcoming, employees and customers were mostly positive about the increase," explained Clayton. "It was challenging, but we succeeded in empowering our employees and eventually our customers to understand our rates reflect the market."

In other areas, Clayton said internal communication is consistent across departments and several vehicles are in place to keep employees informed. Each update is tied to a specific medium (print, video, etc.), depending on which best communicates the information. Tracking results is fundamental.

"Several months ago, we evaluated the need for an employee video," Clayton said then. "We found that the employees valued it, but wanted shorter programs. Today, we met those needs instead of cutting the program."

The company, which has maintained a successful volunteer program since 1985, also provides community service opportunities on company time. The investment has been returned tenfold: increased involvement, a stronger brand, and personal/professional development for interested employees.

"We have developed a culture that values service to our community," said Clayton. "It has given many their first experience and nurtured lifetime volunteers. Today, our employees take pride in the program and it attracts people with similar values."

It seems understanding human capital has paid off for the company: long-term employee recruitment, retention, succession, and culture building are as vibrant at the company today as it was when I interviewed Clayton then.

Applied to social media, similar (if not the same) results can be achieved by nurturing online cultures even more effectively than print, video, or other communication devices alone. It doesn't matter if the network is an added function of an Intranet or Internet.

Internally, social networks, assuming the communication is well crafted, can be employed to reinforce corporate culture, encourage isolated departments and remote locations to work better together, provide better access to top decision makers (such as a CEO), and educate employees about upcoming corporate changes in real time, which would help minimize any damage caused by misleading internal or external gossip (assuming the executive team doesn't start the rumor).

Externally or even independently of a company, the same techniques can be applied to an online community. While members of a social network are not employees, they do consist of a structure similar to any organization.

As such, they too have human capital. By increasing communication from key stakeholders and the most active members outward, social network stewards might be better able to manage anything and everything from complete network redesigns to the tone of the participants without enforcing rules or expectations that drive members away. As leaders, the most effective social network stewards set the tone and agenda through example much like the best run companies set the tone and agenda for employees.

Digg!

2 comments:

Pastry Artist on 7/10/07, 4:34 PM said...

What an excellent post. I am in agreement that when stewards are good leaders they can usually get positive response from their employees.

It takes a special management team to have that kind of rapport within the company, in order to make such a smooth and cooperative transition.

By your telling, they accomplished what they wanted the company to eventually project. When you have good people working for you it is so important to treat them properly. Sometimes there simply isn't a price for loyalty.

Theresa111
http://skdd.wordpress.com
I posted my third grade photo

Rich on 7/10/07, 5:36 PM said...

Thanks Theresa,

Southwest Gas has always engaged its employees and employed some pretty stellar communication programs that release messages from the inside out.

Since the employees always know what is going on, they are able to share insights with the public beyond any public relations. The messages are driven by the executive team.

We've worked with and for them on a number of occasions and have always found the same environment. Considering they created it without the benefit of social media, it only makes sense that they could accomplish even more using the same techniques (with a new medium).

You're right though... loyalty whether from employees, vendors, or even social media members, cannot be bought. When I teach, I often use the local power company as a contrast.

They too had a rate increase at the same time, but they were not forthcoming to the public, did not inform employees, and, not surprisingly, had very different results. Fortunately, I worked with them prior to this incident. They've since merged with the state's northern utility.

Oh yeah, I checked out your third grade photo. What a great idea!

All my best,
Rich

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