The social effect

VITAL STATS: Fiona Mullan has been with Microsoft since 2005 and is currently the senior HR director for the APAC region. She is responsible for working with the leadership team to drive the company’s people agenda. Before this, she led Microsoft’s recruiting function for all geographies outside the US and Canada. Before joining Microsoft, she was with Accenture for seven years, where she served as HR director for the government sector in the UK, Ireland and the Nordic region.

The use of social media is still something relatively new to the HR function.

Organisations, historically, have a very hierarchical structure and organisational models of today have been traditionally quite structured. They’ve been built for execution, for processes and for efficiency, but the reality is the advent of social media is challenging all of that. From a Microsoft perspective, what we’re saying is that social media is here to stay, and social media is and will continue to put pressure on organisations to change.

Which area of the organisation do you feel will be under the most pressure to adapt to the influx of social media in the workplace? Social media is something our employees want and are already bringing into organisations, and it’s having a big impact on the culture of organisations. It is enabling information, which has historically been up and down the organisation to now move up and down, as well as left and right through the virtual networks within the company.

With social media here to stay, what do you think is the first thing leaders need to do to manage the change in the working landscape?

Organisations and HR professionals really need a strategy to leverage these social media technologies in a way that will help conversations be more effective, drive more employee engagement, communication, decision-making, greater idea generation, and ultimately help the organisation be a more innovative company – not just internally, but also with the customers.

What makes a strong and effective social media strategy?

The strategy needs to really understand where social media can bring value – many organisations start from a very conservative point. You need to understand what social media can do, where it can be applied, and what types of technologies should be used internally to support that.

How big a role does HR play in crafting that social media strategy?

As HR professionals, it’s such an exciting time to be in HR because as an organisation and as professionals, we can help generate the right dialogue internally within the leadership of companies to really understand where the opportunities exist.

Aside from HR being part of that conversation, who should also be at the table when discussing the initial stages of building a social media strategy?

You need to have senior stakeholders and key leadership sponsors in there to both understand and support the change.

Certainly, HR should be a key leader in that dialogue, but I would also advocate the marketing department be there.

They tend to be the most advanced in using social media strategies, so they can really bring in the deep expertise and lead the change by demonstrating how to use it internally and, of course, the IT department.

What are some of the focus points companies should be looking at when designing the strategy?

Companies need to really start thinking about potential risks, privacy and data security, and looking for social media technologies that will allow for the benefits of social media, but mitigate some of the challenges that come with it.

Once a strategy is in place, how can social media best support the organisation?

We pick opportunities within the organisation where social media can add value and demonstrate success. As we’ve seen, these things begin to reverberate through the organisation in a viral way, and that’s been our experience on many different types of subjects and community groups, or even addressing different types of problems – these are really the areas where we’ve seen social media add value.

Do you think Microsoft and its employees have an advantage in leveraging off social media in the office because of the industry you are in?

I definitely think Microsoft has an advantage as a technology company, and a company that’s used to using all of its own technologies for collaboration. That said, the pace of change has moved extremely quickly, so for us, just like many other companies, we have seen enormous change over the past couple of years.

We’re also seeing the need to change quickly to be more diverse in global operations. These tools are being seen less as technologies, but as enablers of change, which are allowing for faster communication and a greater understanding and leveraging of employee ideas.

With the influx of technology in the workplace, how do you keep the human element within the company?

In many ways, social media technologies complement existing methods of communication such as face-to-face meetings. In my experience, it has allowed us to have greater connections. If you’re doing a one-on-one and your manager is in another country, you could do that over video, see the same information or work on the same presentation together. In our experience, there’s been great personalisation [in communication] supported by these technologies, but obviously it’s all about applying the right communication medium to the right environment. It does take change management to really help employees understand how they use these tools and where they can help them.

Fiona Mullan, senior HR director APAC at Microsoft


Has Microsoft used social media as the main vehicle when communicating something to employees?

Microsoft recently announced a change to our performance and rewards approach, which was a pretty sizeable change. We used our own social media product – Yammer – as a way to engage hundreds of thousands of employees on that change. We’ve had ongoing dialogue on our social media boards around questions, about what it means, getting input and feedback from employees which started at the launch in November and continues today.

How is that experience different from what the company would have done through traditional communication methods?

Historically, you would have had a launch email or you would have done meetings in your local organisations, and we obviously still continue with those. But because we have used social media as the main vehicle to really engage employees in the change, it’s been quite a fundamentally different experience for them in that respect.

How so?

You’ve got employees having dialogues with each other from different countries, and our global HR and others have personally provided some input, so that’s been a really interesting experience for us, and something that is very relevant for the company.

One belief on why social media hasn’t completely integrated itself into the office is around privacy concerns.

Certainly, it is the leaders and HR departments’ responsibility to make sure we’re doing the right thing in terms of protecting confidential information and securing it in a way that we should. But I think it’s also incumbent on leaders, on IT and on HR, and on employees to educate themselves. We all see the value in greater trust in organisations and greater transparency. That is really valuable in leveraging all the employees’ ideas around business problems and opportunities, as well as driving greater engagement and productivity.

What advice would you give in terms of that change management process?

Really understanding the existing landscape that you have in terms of where your executives are in relation to the use of technologies and the kinds of business opportunities the technologies can enable. I don’t think these things are a case of using social media for the sake of social media – how can it help employees work more effectively, how can it help them communicate more effectively, or understand their needs and ideas, and drive engagement.

How do you think having an open communication when implementing new social media practices helps?

I think when leaders and employees see that connection [between the technologies and the business bottom line], they begin to get it. I would recommend starting with an opportunity where there is immediate value and where you can demonstrate success, and showcase that success to others in your organisation.

As long as we aren’t seeing it [social media] as an opportunity, the experience will feel like a challenge.

What do you think is the secret to successfully turning any organisation into one which is leveraging and benefiting from social media?

It goes back to having a social media strategy in your organisation, and that strategy should address all of the opportunities for the organisation – around its culture, the company’s approach to customers, the business value, the change management it will involve, as well as all of the proper protection in relation to security and privacy.

What do you think will happen if companies implement social media without a strategy in place? 

Without an overarching strategy, the reality is social media will still come at you because employees will bring it into the organisation anyway. So unless you have that overarching strategy, the tendency will be to be defensive towards it. That’s unfortunate, as it’s such a missed opportunity for the organisation to move forward.

With your experience in APAC, have the different nuances within the region posed different challenges?

Certainly there are different levels of social media penetration across the region. This is largely driven by the level of online connections and the number of devices people have. What we’ve learned about social media and the advancement of technologies is the pace of change happens very quickly, but that should not hold back HR professionals from waiting for greater levels of penetration; even though you may have lower levels of advancements, the change is inevitable.

How do you keep the strategy consistent across the region despite the need for localisation? 

It’s about involving the right stakeholders, ensuring the strategy is aligned, and learning from other businesses that may be slightly more advanced.

Looking forward, how do you think the social aspect of organisations will continue to evolve?

We’re in a very exciting time in organisational design and strategy. As I mentioned earlier, most companies build a very traditional organisational structure, built for process, scalability, execution and efficiency. Our conversation over many years has always been around productivity of organisations. I see continued change in terms of how we structure organisations, how we communicate up and down and left to right, how we get work done, how we solve problems and how we generate ideas.

How do you think globalisation will have a role to play in this change?

Ultimately, it will come down to influencing culture at its core – a culture of how to make decisions, how we share information, the levels of transparency and trust. Employees want to see their organisations do the right thing, and they want to be engaged in the business opportunities and in solving problems; they want to be part of the innovation. We will see social media continue to influence communication channels, which I think will have a pretty fundamental impact on how we will structure organisations in the future.

Speaking of the future of organisations, what impact will social media have on a multigenerational workplace?

I think social media is going to be an aid, because it allows people to identify and find like-minded people working on the same problem, or working on a particular opportunity. Social media is pretty agnostic in terms of who you are, where you come from and what age you are, so in our experience, it’s been a great enabler in helping leverage on the diversity in an organisation – be it diversity of generation, culture or perspective, and driving greater connectivity.

And what do you think is the single biggest challenge social media is posing to organisations?

The challenge it’s posing is that it’s here to stay. There are many HR professionals and business leaders who don’t yet see it as an opportunity and that it is here to stay. As long as we aren’t seeing it as an opportunity, the experience will feel like a challenge.