How to Teach Social Media to Business Leaders: Interview with Jeanne Meister

Jeanne Meister is co-author of The 2020 Workplace book  and Partner of Future Workplace, a firm  provides executive education to HR leaders and high-potential managers to build the skills and capabilities needed for success in the workplace of the future.

Her Generational IQ™ Program helps human resource professionals gain new insights into how working with multiple generations impacts their organization, their team and themselves.

In this exclusive interview she tells Eric Schwartzman why social media policies aren’t necessarily the answer to spurring adoption and winning compliance,  how social media is changing the human resources business and why social media literacy is the real goal organizations should be focused on.

Eric:  How is social media changing human resources?

Jeanne:  In the book “The 2020 Workplace” I look at 20 predictions for the workplace of the future. Prediction number 19, in no particular order, was that social medial literacy will be as common and ethics training and diversity training by the year 2020 and actually that there’s a momentum that’s really being surpassed by that prediction.

When we made that prediction the book was launched at the end of 2010. Early on we’ve seen that the technology companies were the first to really think about social media literacy as a new skill set that their employees needed, so the Dell’s and the Zapoos’s and Intel’s were really first on with this.

What I’ve seen over the last two and a half years is interest among consumer packaging companies as well as healthcare companies.

I think human resources directors, the chief human resource officer now is recognizing that not only do employees need to build these skills, but, many of the individuals leading the human resource functions in Fortune 500 companies need to develop these skills for themselves.

Eric:  Do they have those skills?

Jeanne:  Often they don’t. Often they are lagging in really being social medial literate and understanding the impact of developing these skills to drive business results. It’s all about driving business results. I think the heads of HR are more focused on risk aversion, on compliance.

What they and everybody else needs to focus on is “How can we teach our employees to use these new sites, to use internal social networks like Yammer and Jive and Chatter as well as external sites like LinkedIn to really drive social media and business results.”

Eric:  What is social media literacy?

Jeanne: I think of it as understanding how to use the tools in social media, both inside and outside the organization, in a safe and secure way to improve one’s performance on the job.

Eric:  Given the very public nature of communications on social networks, if you’re steering and encouraging employees to do their jobs on public social networks, how do you manage those risks?

Jeanne:  I think that the first step, what I’ve seen, is social media training around the organization’s social media policy or guidelines. I’m actually hearing that a lot of companies who formerly had a social media policy are steering away from that for a whole host of potential legal reasons, but they need to give employees some guardrails about what is safe to share, how to share, and, importantly, role model how to share to drive some business results.

I’m reminded of the program that PepsiCo has had which has been somewhat controversial, in that they’ve trained people to use social media but really are looking for their employees to be social ambassadors for the Pepsi brand and really guiding them on how they can be ambassadors on external sights.

You can see that employees may give you some push back, but with a company the size of Pepsi that’s 300,000 employees and let’s say each employee has at least, for this purpose, 250 friends on Facebook, wouldn’t it be great if you could make it easy for employee to share coupons, to share news about product launches with their friends?

Eric:  I want to follow up on something you said earlier. You said a lot of companies were steering away from instituting social media policies. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Jeanne:  What I’ve seen is that companies are questioning with their legal counsel, “Do we need a separate policy on social media, or do we have some guidelines for employees on how to use these internal and external sites in a safe manner? Really, we’re going to hire and fire employees based on our individual code of conduct. Do we really need something special on social media?”

I think it’s just bubbling up as a series of questions that a chief communication officer, an HR officer, and a legal counsel are beginning to have. Do we need another formal policy where someone objects to it, or are we good enough to go with what we have in our code of conduct but then provide some guardrails on social media usage?

Eric:  The code of conduct stuff is the easy stuff. The hard stuff is, “How do you discourage bulk posting? How do discourage paid links? How do you discourage paid endorsements?” Aren’t these are all things that are specific to digital and social media?

Jeanne:  That’s part of your social media guidelines. It may be splitting hairs, but I think what I’m seeing, the undercurrent, is people just stepping away from calling it a policy to calling it something a little looser while still providing very detailed guidance on what you should or shouldn’t do.

I think overall there’s unanimous agreement that we’re in the Wild West in a bit if we don’t provide our employees guidance. Let’s face it. Whether your company has a social media policy or not or whether your company even allows you to go on YouTube from your work computer, it’s irrelevant in these days of bring your own devices.

Companies really need to understand and provide the guidance of what you can and what you can’t do in some form.

Eric:  In your book you cover the fact that there’s going to be five generations in the workplace in 2020. Given that you’ve got these five generations all of whom have different levels of digital literacy, how do you develop a multigenerational training program that really allows you to effectively introduce all these different employees to the power of social media?

Jeanne:  I think that one has to assume that the younger millennials are probably going to be more literate. One way to bring them into the process is to consider them the power users and think of them as the ambassadors for developing a social media literacy training program. They’re going to be the ones.

Often, we see in the work we talk about, the growth in reverse mentoring programs, where millennials will actually mentor older senior executives. Often, the topic is around digital literacy or social media usage, or even using the latest cloud to improve one’s productivity, or the latest apps.

For anyone out there listening, think of your millennials as mentors, reverse mentors, for those older traditionalists and Boomers that may not have developed this skill set as robustly as millennials have.

Eric:  I love that idea because we’re dealing now with a generation that has grown up with the impulse to share every moment that’s noteworthy in their lives. However, what concerns me is that these folks are new to business and don’t really often understand the reasons decisions get made in the boardroom.

They may not have the business maturity to understand what communications left online that never disappear could mean for them in a broader context, or worse yet, taken out of context. I wonder, is it dangerous to trust the millennials to lead us alone into this brave new world?

Jeanne:  Assuming that you mean trust them totally, but I think that if you were to put yourself in the position of somebody who may still be working, a senior executive, age 55, relies on their kids when they have a tech‑y question. They’re quite receptive to having some one‑on‑one on the nuts and bolts of finding your way around and using some of these tools.

In no way do millennials set the stage here because let’s face it. They are living in a transparent world, but we all are. It drives home the point that millennials can be the reverse mentors, but that doesn’t take the place for an organization’s commitment to build social media literacy training across the enterprise.

Think of it as a one‑on‑one opportunity. In no way it replaces a formal or informal program.

One of the interesting companies I interviewed for that was Sprint. They have what they call their Ninja social media training program.

What they shared, and what I’m also seeing with these other companies, is that it’s not enough to just have a one‑time program. You really have to have an ongoing online community. There needs to be a place where people can go when they have those tough questions.

They’re usually at a point in their workflow where they have a social media issue. They may have taken a program six months ago or six weeks ago, but they have that question now.

I see this as a very robust area, which should live with not only formal programs, but informal ways to get quick knowledge.

Eric:  Is there a role for social media in internal corporate communications?

Jeanne:  Well, first of all, companies that are successful in having brought internal collaboration platforms, like Yammer and SAP, say a couple of things about their success in doing so.

The first thing they often say is for these internal collaboration platforms to be successful, you must think that they are part of the workflow. These internal platforms are not another place to go. They are not another password to remember.

They should be built into the way people view their jobs. That’s number one.

The second is when they’re inside the organization, how can they have a business impact on some of the critical processes and use cases that executives care about? For example, on‑boarding and recruiting, how can we use these collaboration platforms to speed up the time to competency for new hires?

The second is how do we make key jobs, key roles, more productive faster, like allowing salespeople to share proposals faster, or allowing [indecipherable 16:43] a way to share best practices faster? There are some key use cases that we have to identify and understand. Figure out how those are aligned to our strategy and really focus on driving collaboration with those key processes.

Those are just two. They’re certainly focusing on key roles that drive revenue, like sales, focusing on increasing time to competency in recruiting and on‑boarding.

Then a third one that often comes up is one in increasing the speed to innovation, getting those great ideas out there and acted upon faster.

Overall, the overarching goal is we’ve got to change the way we work and really build more collaboration, online collaboration, into how we work and do our jobs in order to be successful.

Eric:  What about all the new rules and regulations that the government is releasing concerning how organizations can and can’t and how employees can and can’t lawfully use social media professionally?

If a company makes a mistake, they could be looking at hundreds of thousand dollars in legal fees alone, not including punitive damages or settlement costs. What’s the best for companies to keep their employees abreast abiding of the changing laws in this area?

Jeanne:  What I’ve seen is looking at social media literacy as an annual program that also needs to be where someone gets certified and this social media skill set is also built into all new hire training programs. It’s actually something that Unisys has launched.

Every company has a new hire on-boarding program. This is a logical place to put social media training. Why not certify one’s ability in social media literacy? But then we know how many things change and how often they change, so this is also an area that one needs to be recertified in, maybe even as frequently as every six months.

Individuals that work for big companies are used to going through ethics training and being certified and complying with that every year. Why shouldn’t social media be doing the same thing? I would add to that that it really needs to happen on a six‑month basis and not a year, because there’s too much change.

Eric:  Of course, it’s not just the regulatory environment that’s changing. The platforms themselves change. We just got Facebook Graph Search. We just got Instagram video. They’re always changing. While the key concepts are pretty much the same, best practices and the how‑to mechanics are in flux.

If I’m at a big company where my core competency is not necessarily training or social media, it’s making cars, delivering electronic components, preparing tax returns or whatever it might be, does it make sense for that company to take on the burden of maintaining those trainings themselves internally, or do you think there needs to be some sort of a provider? How do you see that unfolding?

Jeanne:  If you think about it, employees definitely come in different segments, especially when it comes to this topic. There is one segment that really needs deep knowledge. Think of them as maybe the brand managers that manage social media platforms for big brands. They really need to know exactly what you said ‑‑ the latest and greatest on Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, and how to leverage these platforms to drive greater revenue and market share for their brand.

But then there’s the individual that just wants to stay out of trouble, wants to be sure that they’re sharing things in a safe and responsible way, and wants to understand how to collaborate safely with other team members.

Eric:  Where can people connect with you?

Jeanne:  You can find me on or email me at Jeanne at FutureWorkplace dot com.