How to use internal social networks

27 Sep 2017 By Marianne Calnan

Smart organisations are turning to social media to boost collaboration. People Management explains how to choose the right network for you, and the secrets of a smooth roll-out

Whether you’re seeking solace or approval, it’s second nature these days to ping out a tweet or post a photo on Instagram in the hope of receiving validation or support from strangers on the other side of the globe.

But striking up a conversation with Martin from marketing or Sonya from sales when you bump into them in the office kitchen still feels uncomfortable for many employees – which is why an increasing number of organisations are tapping into internal social networks (ISNs) to improve collaboration and build more friendly workplace cultures.

An estimated 2.34 billion people globally use social networks, so it’s little wonder that employees expect “similar communicative benefits at work”, says Paula Neary, CEO of consultancy and technology services provider Ribbonfish. “And they will become ever-more important as today’s teenagers start work over the next decade.”

ISNs – more accurately known as enterprise social networks – can also help increase employee engagement and productivity and speed up decision-making, says Jenny Burns, director 

of brand and customer experience at financial services firm Just. They are particularly helpful for bringing together and communicating with workforces across international borders, and for those with a large proportion of remote workers, adds Richard Freke, managing director of HR consultancy HR2 Selection.

“Their uses are almost limitless,” says Rachel Miller, director of All Things IC, a communications consultancy. “You can use them to recognise good work; to research ideas; to facilitate conversations; as a knowledge base; to help with onboarding, social recruiting and talent management; and to run digital focus groups and training.”

But employers must be careful not to get carried away with the potential benefits of ISNs and leap in without giving their use due consideration – it’s essential to understand your motivations for implementing one, and the goals you want to achieve, before picking a platform. “Organisations must have their strategy and employees in mind before introducing an ISN,” says Katie Marlow, director of consultancy Little Bird Communication. “There’s no point investing in one if employees aren’t going to use it – staff will only embrace it if they are involved in its creation.”

Choosing the right one for your company’s culture and aims is vital, and there’s a bewildering array of ISNs to choose from. The most widely used include Microsoft Teams – a chat-based workspace that’s integrated with Office 365 applications such as Skype – and Slack, which offers group and private messaging and has experienced a rapid growth in popularity beyond its initial tech-centric user base.

A fairly new entrant on the scene is Workplace by Facebook, which some experts say has contributed to a surge in ISNs’ popularity since its launch in October last year. Just like ‘regular’ Facebook, Workplace provides instant group or private messaging, news feeds based on the colleagues each employee ‘follows’, and video and voice calling.

When assessing the options, it’s important to consider scalability in terms of price and user base, mobile access and the potential for integration with the business tools and technology your staff already use. But the best way to discover which ISN is right for your organisation is trial and error, says Burns. “Yammer from Microsoft is a good place to start because it’s free to use initially.”

Burns has overseen the introduction of Yammer at RSA Insurance in an effort to reduce email traffic. Four-fifths of the firm’s 22,500 employees signed up to the platform, with just over half becoming regular, engaged users. Most importantly, it achieved its goal of reducing the use of email, which dropped by more than a third. 

But simply choosing a platform and providing everyone with access won’t help you reach your targets; a well-considered roll-out plan is essential to securing employee buy-in and making the ISN part of day-to-day working practices. “You need to prepare the ground before planting seeds and expecting them to sprout,” says Miller. “Successful implementation depends on many factors – not least how leaders and employees use and nurture your network.”

Marlow suggests recruiting champions from around the business – enthusiastic social media users are ideal – to encourage use of the platform among their teams. Promotional efforts should be focused on employees who are the least likely to use it, says Neary. “Not everyone is social media-savvy, so it’s these people who you’ll need to target with training and support.”

Richard Baker, head of internal communications at commercial vehicle rental provider Northgate, adds: “The ‘if you build it they will come’ approach doesn’t apply to ISNs. Like any tool, people need a reason to use it. You might want to suggest it as part of a broader project communication strategy, for example. I’ve also seen it work really well for sales teams who spend a lot of time on the road; they’re generally a sociable bunch and it’s great for keeping in touch with colleagues.”

Networks are most effective and useful to employees when their popularity grows organically, adds Baker. While you can encourage people to engage with them via drop-in sessions and publicity through other, pre-existing, channels, such as email or intranet, “it’s important not to force people to use it”, he says. “Some will get really involved from the start, commenting and posting. Others will be ‘lurkers’, and just read what others have posted. That’s fine. They aren’t for everyone all of the time – it’s just another part of the wider internal communications mix.” 

Once the network is up and running, it still needs to be maintained and promoted, although most experts recommend HR takes a mainly ‘hands off’ approach, intervening when content that is deemed offensive or abusive is posted. One way to do that is to select a group of staff “known for their fair judgement” to keep an eye on posts, suggests Freke, but in general employees should be trusted to “do the right thing”.

The ever-growing importance of agility and collaboration to organisational success means it’s likely few top employers will be without an ISN in the years to come. “They give people at every level of the organisation a voice and the ability to reach out to anyone – including the CEO,” says Baker. “Senior teams should leap at the opportunity to build a more open organisation and improve trust using these networks.”

Six steps to an internal social network

  1. “Start by researching your business – its people, culture, strategy and existing systems,” says Katie Marlow, director of Little Bird Communication.
  2. “Invest your time, money and effort wisely – make sure you have sufficient resources in place to encourage your network to flourish,” adds Rachel Miller, director of All Things IC.
  3. Ensure all content is accurate, reliable and open to as many employees as possible.
  4. Make the ISN’s content interesting and valuable, as well as easy to access. Give employees a reason to keep coming back to the platform.
  5. Get the backing of senior leaders and encourage them to lead by example, and use the network with their teams. Consider inviting employees to regularly ask senior leaders questions on themed topics.
  6. “Once you’ve launched, manage, reflect, amend, improve and grow as your business and people do,” says Marlow.
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