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Providing a voice is great, lending an ear is even better

Enterprise Social Networks: Yammer, Chatter, Slack, you name them, I’ve dabbled with most.

All starts off with furtive enthusiasm and tapers quickly when it typically ends up a tool for the thoroughly engaged call centre crew but unloved by the head office crowd. Perhaps not straight away but, sooner or later, the platform dwindles and the intranet wins out yet again, leaving a stark warning to those who would bring flashy fixes to age-old problems.

There are plenty of reasons Enterprise Social Networks, or ESNs, fail. But I think the root cause is very often the same – the mistaken belief that the ‘Social Enterprise’ enables an organisation's culture, when in fact the opposite is true. That is certainly my experience with using Facebook's ESN platform, Workplace, at NBN Co.

The company launched Workplace back in the middle of 2016 and, last week, Swoop Analytics identified NBN Co as one of the world's top five users of the platform in its inaugural Workplace Benchmarking Report

In the report, Swoop analyses data from organisations across the globe using Workplace. It benchmarks organisations by various measures to identify which have the most mature and diverse use of the platform. Critically, the report highlights the key to successfully embedding an ESN is not the technology that an organisation implements, but the culture defining its use.

So, how did we get there? How did we reach the point where we stopped talking about the platform itself and simply used it to talk to each other?

Image courtesy of Swoop Analytics.

Last year, Patrick Devery from our Employee Communications team wrote a blog citing lessons learned after one year with the platform. In it, he likened our use of the platform to a "supercharged conversation" and the hallmark of a valuable conversation isn't just the talking, it's the listening.

A lot is made of ESNs ability to ‘empower’ employees and provide everyone with a ‘voice’. But there isn't much mention of providing everyone with an ear. To my mind, however, this is the key to the value that Workplace provides us at NBN Co – we use the platform to listen, to learn and to improve. The data published by Swoop – especially its emphasis on ‘two-way relationships’ – reinforces this.

So, how did we get there? How did we reach the point where we stopped talking about the platform itself and simply used it to talk to each other?

Whether it’s the burgeoning membership of our book club, ‘nbn reads’, or the connections made through ‘Women of nbn’, I have a daily connection with people across the business that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. And it’s through these networks, outside of the more formal channels, that any of us can uncover opportunities to improve the company, to reinforce the culture of support and inclusion, to share common interests, and to lend weight to a voice that might previously have been lost.

When we first launched Workplace, as an example, there was no forum for Pride at NBN Co. Today, we have a lively community where people share their stories, support each other and seek information across the business. The impact of this goes beyond the veneer of ‘social media’. The Pride Group has had real and meaningful input into the creation of a safe and inclusive workforce culture.

By listening to the nbn™ local team, I have a better understanding of the pain points they face when meeting communities face to face, be it the topics of greatest interest in regional Australia, or unearthing the stories and pictures of some of our most complex connections for sharing with the broader community. We have a news desk where anyone can send their ideas; it means my team doesn’t have to be at the front and centre of everything but can listen remotely and use those on the ground to fish out the good news and the interesting yarns.

Would I have experienced these conversations and learnings if our culture was not one of transparency, of inclusiveness and diverse voices? Almost certainly not. The ESN did not make that conversation happen, our people did. In that respect, NBN Co is fortunate.

What Workplace has certainly done however is "supercharge" our conversations, as Patrick put it. The power of that, the momentum it can create inside an organisation, is quite something to behold. When our CEO Bill Morrow posted an impromptu call to action in October last year around our zero-tolerance approach to harassment, almost everyone – everyone! – who opened up Workplace that day read the post. More than 1,200 of our people ‘liked’ it and the post generated 100+ comments. I posted to LinkedIn about it at the time. It was extraordinary.

But there is a flipside to that level of engagement. When you have nearly 100 per cent of your people on an enterprise platform, that's a lot of conversations to keep track of. When everyone has a voice, how do you listen effectively?

Undoubtedly, it's a challenge. For me, it involves ‘listening at scale’, which is really trusting our people to help do the listening for you. If there are themes emerging or problems to deal with, I trust in the advice and expertise of my colleagues to deal with them. And if, for any reason, I need to know about something, I trust my people to bring it to me. Again, it all comes back to culture.

Leaders, of course, have a crucial role; not just to broadcast their insights and updates but to actively engage in conversations on the platform. Yes, it takes time and discipline. But the benefits – being able to feel the pulse of your company; hearing new stories and learning from different perspectives; finding experiences and expertise you never even dreamed existed – more than make up for it.

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